As it enters the United Nations Security Council for the third time since the end of the Cold War, India finds a very different dynamic than the one it encountered during the earlier stints in 1991-92 and 2011-12. India, too, has changed over the last decade. The range of Indian interests has expanded and so has the circle of India’s international partners.
Delhi’s attitudes have also shifted from the reactive to the proactive. That, in turn, should make India’s new stint at the UNSC more purposeful and pragmatic. Purposefulness is about tightly integrating its UNSC engagement with India’s broader national goals. Pragmatism demands adapting to the changed conditions at the UNSC and avoiding overly ambitious goals.
During 1991-92, Delhi saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the new Russia’s turn to the US and the West. The People’s Republic of China was focused on getting its house in order, opening its economy and keeping a low profile in the unipolar moment. India, too, had good reasons to keep its head down. Delhi had to fix its broken economy, put out political bushfires across the country and rejig its foreign policy to cope with the post-Soviet world.
The West could not resist the temptations for geopolitical overreach at the UN. Liberals across the Atlantic sought to transform the “inter-national” forum into a “supra-national” institution that would actively reshape the domestic structures of different societies. For India, it was a moment to hunker down and resist external imposition of solutions to its manifold problems — especially on the Kashmir question and the nuclear issue.
Fast forward to 2011-12. A revived Russia and a rising China began to demur against the sweeping Western agenda at the UN. India’s own relative position improved in the first decade of the 21st century, thanks to rapid economic growth. Delhi was certainly less defensive than in the 1990s, but struggled to turn its new strengths into practical outcomes.
A decade later, India has walked into a far more contentious UNSC. Differences between the US, China and Russia have become intractable. China has risen to be a great power and is making expansive claims and trying to redeem them. Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow have drifted apart and Russia has moved closer to China.
This tension among the US, China and Russia has been reinforced by sharpening disagreements between Washington and its European allies, amidst President Donald Trump’s questioning of America’s traditional alliances. Although President-elect Joe Biden wants to work closely with European allies in the global arena, not all wrinkles can be smoothed over.
As India looks for a productive tenure at the UNSC, five objectives present themselves. One is about making the UNSC “effective”. Delhi, however, might be sensible to pare down that ambition. The UNSC is becoming less effective today thanks to the deep divisions among the major powers.
The UNSC system was designed to function as a concert of five powers. Unanimity among the five permanent members with veto powers was rare during the Cold War decades. After a brief moment of great power cooperation in the 1990s, we are now back in an era of contestation. But there will be enough room for India to carve out a larger role for itself amid renewed great power rivalry.
The UNSC offers room for sustained diplomatic interaction between the major powers, who could minimise tensions and create new opportunities for cooperation. Much like the US and USSR that cooperated on issues relating to nuclear proliferation at the height of the Cold War, the US and China could explore potential common ground even amidst their broad-based confrontation. All other powers, including India, will, of course, want to be sure that the US-China cooperation is not at the expense of others.
Two, making the UNSC more “representative” has been one of India’s demands since the end of the Cold War. Pessimists would urge Delhi to curb its enthusiasm. China has no interest in letting two other Asian powers — India and Japan — join the UNSC as permanent members. Optimists would suggest Delhi’s campaign, in partnership with Brazil, Germany and Japan, to expand the UNSC must continue. For the campaign is about an important principle and revealing the nature of political resistance to it.
Three, Delhi has no choice but to deal with China’s growing hostility to India. At the end of the Cold War, India had bet that cooperation with China on the multilateral front was valuable in its own right, and would also help generate the conditions for resolving the boundary dispute and expand the areas of bilateral cooperation. Delhi, which was eager to build a multipolar world with Beijing, now finds itself in a unipolar Asia that is centred around China. Meanwhile, the boundary dispute has worsened over the last decade. India now joins the UNSC amid a continuing military standoff between the two armies in the high Himalayas following the Chinese aggression in the Ladakh region.
Senior Indian officials have promised to “work with” China with an open mind. Sceptics would discount that sentiment. China has repeatedly tried to get the UNSC to focus on India’s constitutional changes in Kashmir. On the question of cross-border terrorism, Beijing protects Pakistan from the international pressures that India has sought to mobilise at various fora. On the nuclear front, China continues to block India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Four, the engagement with peace and security issues at the UNSC will allow India to strengthen its new coalitions such as the Quad — which brings together Australia, India, Japan and the US. India could also use the UNSC tenure to deepen collaboration with its European partners like France and Germany in the security arena, and find common ground with “Global Britain” that is carving out a new international path for itself after breaking away from the European Union. Delhi must also sustain an intensive dialogue with Moscow on all international issues, notwithstanding Russia’s worsening problems with the West and closer ties to China.
Fifth, Delhi needs to revitalise its engagement with its traditional partners in the “global south” by articulating their peace and security concerns in the UNSC. Two sub-groups of the global south should be of special interest. The numerous small island states around the world face existential challenges from global warming and rising sea levels. They also struggle to exercise control over their large maritime estates. Supporting the sovereignty and survivability of the island states is a crucial political task for India.
Africa is the other priority. Nearly half of UNSC meetings, 60 per cent of its documents, and 70 per cent of its resolutions are about peace and security in Africa. The continent has three seats in the UNSC (Kenya, Niger and Tunisia) and there is regular consultation between the UNSC and the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the African Union (AU). The UNSC tenure is a good moment for Delhi to intensify India’s engagement on peace and security issues in Africa at bilateral, regional and global levels.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 5, 2021 under the title ‘India’s UNSC opportunity’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express