Features | Security | South Asia

Time for India to Press UN Case

India has a powerful claim to permanent UN Security Council membership. The next two years are its best chance to prove it.

In his speech to the Indian Parliament earlier this month, US President Barack Obama held out the tantalizing possibility of India eventually joining the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member. Since that dramatic announcement, there’s been fevered commentary, especially within India, about the prospects for such a move and the terms under which the country might be allowed to enter this hallowed realm. 

Much of the discussion and debate has centred around the time horizon this might occur, on whether or not India would be granted the coveted veto and on the likely objections from India’s principal long-term adversary, China. These exchanges are entirely apposite and topical. However, they frustratingly overlook one key point: India’s claim to permanent membership is already as good—if not significantly better—than China’s.

India was a founding member of the United Nations even though it hadn’t yet obtained its independence from the United Kingdom. Subsequently, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru proved to be an ardent supporter of the organization and its activities. To that end, India played a vital role in the International Control Commission along with Poland and Canada in Indo-China, it played a mediatory role in the Korean War and was one of the original contributors to the UN peacekeeping contingent in the former Belgian Congo. Later, India played a vital part in supporting a host of peacekeeping missions across the world. Even today, close to 10,000 Indian troops are involved in UN peacekeeping operations globally.

China, of course, initially enjoyed a seat at the United Nations but not on the Security Council—it obtained that only when the US derecognized Taiwan in 1979.  Yet despite this dramatic shift in US policy in its favour, China’s record of co-operation with the United States  at the UN during the remainder of the Cold War was no better than that of India, and arguably, considerably worse.  Since the Cold War ended, it hasn’t gotten any better.

But despite this record, and Obama’s public (albeit qualified) endorsement of India’s cause, there are influential commentators and analysts in the United States who remain steadfastly opposed to making India a permanent Security Council member. Indeed, it might be the US experience with China that has made some so reluctant to take a chance with India.

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Such foot dragging is especially galling for Indian policymakers when they see China’s scant regard for a host of emergent global norms and regimes. Though advocates of non-proliferation never fail to berate India for conducting five nuclear tests in 1998, they maintain an almost stunning silence about China’s abysmal record in this arena. It has fecklessly shared nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology, allied itself to a host of dubious regimes from Sudan to North Korea and was intransigent toward NATO during the Bosnian crisis when ethnic cleansing was rampant in the Balkans.  Meanwhile, its current position remains one of the principal impediments to the imposition of tighter UN sanctions against Iran, despite that country’s clandestine quest for nuclear weapons.

Sadly, China’s extraordinary economic clout and its growing military prowess make most states wary of crossing its path. In addition, given its neuralgic hostility toward India, it’s almost certain that it won’t allow its long-term rival in Asia an easy entry into this charmed circle.

Given this reality, how can India fashion a plan that might enhance its chances of securing this long-sought prize?

Fortunately, India is just about to assume a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. During these two years, the country can demonstrate that it’s capable of wise decision making, that it won’t adopt needlessly contrarian positions on issues of concern to the United States and that it can help bolster the smooth functioning of that body. Simultaneously, it should ramp up its public diplomacy capabilities and activities to highlight its credentials as a responsible stakeholder in a host of existing multilateral bodies. Such en effort will require imagination, concerted action and, above all, persistence.

India’s foreign policy establishment demonstrated considerable dexterity at the end of the Cold War in adjusting to a vastly changed global political and strategic order. Its policymakers should therefore now be able to marshal their energies to ensure that they make the most compelling case for including India in this vital UN body.

In short, the next two years offer India a chance to make sure it can meet another key challenge that Obama spelled out in his parliamentary speech: recognizing that with ‘increased power comes increased responsibility’.

Sumit Ganguly is a professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington and is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.