Chinese support for India’s quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) remains a distant dream. While addressing the students of the Tsinghua University during his recent China visit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi explicitly underlined the positive impact of China’s support for a permanent seat for India at the UNSC. “China’s support for India’s permanent membership of a reformed UNSC and for India’s membership of export control regimes like Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will do more than just strengthen our international cooperation. It will take our relationship to a new level. It will give Asia a stronger voice in the world.”
The joint statement signed that came out of the visit, however, only stated that China “understands and supports India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations including in the Security Council.” In other words, India has no option but to wait for unambiguous Chinese support. It has become a customary feature during high-level official visits for the Chinese side to merely “understand and support” India’s aspirations for a greater international role. As long as both nuclear-armed Asian rivals find themselves at odds in reshaping international institutions, including the UNSC, Asia can never hope to have a stronger voice in the world.
The fate of India’s bid is mainly in the hands of the veto-wielding permanent members of the UNSC, and China is the only veto-wielding permanent member that has yet to extend unequivocal support to India’s bid to become a permanent member.
Any accommodative shift in China’s position on permanent seat is likely to recalibrate Beijing’s ties with Islamabad, as the latter has been vociferous in opposing India’s entry to the SC. Beijing is not likely to upset its “all weather friend” at this juncture, undermining the centrality of Pakistan in the China’s geopolitical calculus. Beijing also fears that India’s entry into the UNSC would be a huge loss for China’s current global status and prestige among the third world countries. Another factor for China is India’s solidarity with Japan, China’s arch rival, in making a joint bid for the UNSC membership.
Past analysis of official documents and statements shows that China has neither clearly supported nor opposed India’s bid. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in April 2005 resulted in a “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity” with India. The joint statement declared: “The Indian side reiterated its aspirations for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The Chinese side also reiterated that India is an important developing country and is having an increasingly important influence in the international arena. China attaches great importance to the status of India in international affairs. It understands and supports India’s aspirations to play an active role in the UN and international affairs.”
Former Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon claimed that Chinese President Hu Jintao, during his 2006 India visit, had “assured” India that China “would not be an obstacle” to Delhi’s quest for permanent membership of the UNSC. Despite these assurances, no concrete guarantee emerged in the subsequent joint declaration signed by the two countries, which stated: “The Indian side reiterates its aspirations for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. China attaches great importance to the status of India in international affairs. It understands and supports India’s aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations.”
During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China in January 2008, the “Shared Vision for the 21st Century” took this line: “The Indian side reiterates its aspirations for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The Chinese side attaches great importance to India’s position as a major developing country in international affairs. The Chinese side understands and supports India’s aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations, including in the Security Council.”
Nirupama Rao, another former foreign secretary, sounded enthusiastic when then Chinese President Hu Jintao reportedly assured the visiting Indian President Pratibha Patil in 2010 that China was ready to discuss the complex issue of a permanent Security Council seat for India. Yet that assurance was simply a continuation of Beijing’s hide-and-seek strategy on this issue. Also in 2010, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also reiterated China’s stand to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “China attaches great importance to India’s status in international affairs as a large developing country, understands and supports India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations, including the Security Council.”
As recently as in September 2014 during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India visit, the joint statement declared: “China attaches great importance to India’s status in international affairs as a large developing country, and understands and supports India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations including in the Security Council.”
A careful reading of the paragraph pertaining to China’s support for India’s membership of the UNSC shows that even the wording of the statements has remained unchanged over recent years. China has perfected the knotty art of saying neither yes nor no.
India’s frustration at being denied entry into the world’s most elite club is compounded by the fact that China is the only developing, non-Western, Asian country wielding veto power in the UNSC. In fact, India vigorously supported China’s entry into the United Nations and the Security Council as well. Citing Indian diplomats who have seen the relevant documents from that era in the 1950s, Shashi Tharoor claims that Nehru “declined” a U.S. offer to take “the permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council then held, with scant credibility, by Taiwan, urging that it be given to Beijing.” Because America’s realist offer went against the grain of Nehru’s idealistic vision driven by utopian aspirations of Asian solidarity, India was denied the golden opportunity to become one of the “fortunate five.” This fateful decision continues to haunt India.
Delhi’s quest for a permanent seat on the UNSC continues to meet with Chinese ambivalence at best, or resistance at worst. Although Beijing has made sympathetic noises in bilateral meetings with Delhi, China has been attempting to defeat any collective diplomatic effort to expand the Security Council’s permanent membership.
Addressing the Indian community in Paris during his French tour last month, Modi made a strong pitch for India to be given a permanent seat, arguing that the “time is over when India would ask for a favour; today India is asking for its rights.” It remains to be seen how long Modi’s India will have to wait for those rights to be granted.
Vinay Kaura is an assistant professor in the department of International Affairs and Security Studies, and Coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.