India China Standoff

How Will Sino-Indian Competition Impact India’s Tenure on the Security Council?

Indian paramilitary soldiers keep guard as an Indian army convoy passes near the disputed border region between India and China. (AP Photo)

On June 17, India was elected to the United Nations Security Council for an eighth time by a thumping 184 votes out of 193, and comfortably more than the minimum requirement of 128, to win the coveted Asia-Pacific group seat for the 2021–22 term. With this win India has become the second most elected country from the Asia-Pacific group on the Council; only Japan, with 11 terms, has represented the group more often.

India’s election to the Council was the easy part. Its tenure, however, will be more challenging.

The election coincided with the most serious clash with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the contested region of Aksai Chin since the two Asian powers went to war over their disputed border in 1962 (when the People’s Republic of China was not a permanent member of the Council or even a member of the UN). This clash—the latest and most dangerous since the 2017 confrontation in Doklam (on the tri-junction of Bhutan, China, and India)—led to the death of at least 20 Indian troops and an undisclosed number of Chinese personnel. The clash highlights the military tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, and is likely to accentuate their differences in other arenas in general, and the Security Council in particular.

Although the recent confrontation has dominated the headlines, it is the tip of the iceberg of Sino-Indian bilateral, regional, and global competition. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi are likely to be dictated by several contentious issues. First, doubtless, the territorial dispute related to the un-demarcated border, coupled with the possibility that such a conflict could go nuclear. Second, the mutual threat perception. New Delhi believes that China has effectively encircled India militarily, economically, and diplomatically through its close alliance with Pakistan (which is benefiting from China’s nuclear and weapons supplies), via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)— especially the China Pakistan Economic Corridor which runs through the disputed territory of Kashmir, the string-of-pearls strategy in the Indian Ocean, and Beijing’s domination of the various regional and international organizations.

Similarly, Beijing looks with increasing alarm at India’s growing strategic partnership with the United States and other powers to manage the Indo-Pacific. In particular, it views the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue and the Malabar naval exercises as part of a deliberate containment strategy. There is also the matter of trade. While China is India’s biggest bilateral trade partner, with an annual figure in 2019 of over $90 billion, it is skewed in China’s favor as India faces a massive deficit of well over $50 billion. Another concern is China’s disregard for international rule of law, evident in its blatant defiance of the UN Laws of the Sea, especially in the disputed South China Sea. On the issue of Kashmir there is also contention, as China has raised the matter at the Security Council twice in less than six months, in addition to blocking the designation of Masood Azhar (the Pakistan-based founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed) as a global terrorist for nearly a decade.

Perhaps the most relevant issue to India’s tenure on the Council is Beijing’s concerted efforts to thwart New Delhi’s quest for a greater role in global governance institutions, either directly or indirectly through proxies. This includes Beijing’s successful blocking of India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group; prodding African states to adopt the Ezulwini consensus, which effectively preserves the status quo and benefits only the existing permanent Security Council members, rather than either India or countries in Africa; and rejecting a timeframe for the already drawn out Intergovernmental Negotiations in the General Assembly on Council reforms, while also insisting on the consensus principle.

Clearly, even before the recent LAC showdown, Beijing was in no hurry to empower India to play a greater role in global governance, and after the June standoff, China’s covert and overt intransigence is likely to increase.

Against this backdrop, some experts have argued that India will invariably move closer to the West, purportedly led by Washington, and will inevitably become part of a like-minded collection of democracies that will “strengthen their bilateral and multilateral security co-operation” to counter “Chinese intentions and capabilities.” New Delhi is, doubtless, keener for closer ties with US-led Western democracies, while at the same time India’s own experience, coupled with the present US administration’s clear anti-China positioning, is “likely to test to the limit India’s capacity to maintain strategic and decisional autonomy.” Because of this, some caution against formal alliances as “strategic autonomy has served India’s interest best,” and, ultimately, “no one else is ready to deal with India’s greatest strategic challenge—China.”

Indeed, while calls for India to move closer to the West have increased, there has been little direct evidence of the West’s support to India, either in terms of policy or materials; leaving New Delhi to fend for itself or turn to non-Western partners, like Russia, for weapons. Besides, given the US spat with its Western allies, it is not clear that the “West” is still a cohesive grouping that India can work with. Instead, India is likely to work with individual Western states, especially France.

Predictably then, India’s anodyne pitch for its Council candidacy makes no reference to working with the West or the G-4 (Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) grouping. Instead, it stresses that the “first and vital step is the reform of the Security Council,” along with “dialogue and cooperation,” “mutual respect,” and “commitment to international law.” Similarly, while emphasizing the Council’s role in effectively responding to international terrorism and streamlining peacekeeping, India—in a marked departure—also sees the Council engaged in addressing “new and complicated challenges,” development, and the use of technology to tackle humanitarian challenges.

While some of India’s priorities will, clearly, pit it against China, New Delhi is unlikely to unquestioningly support calls by the US and its allies for UN-mandated intervention of the kind in Libya in 2011. In such instances it might find itself in line with China and Russia, rather than France, the United Kingdom, or the US. Thus, unless India receives unequivocal support—in words and deeds, especially from the US—for a greater role in global governance, including permanent membership of the Council, it is likely to maintain strategic and decisional autonomy, which ensures overwhelming support from the majority of the UN membership for its ascendency.

Waheguru Pal Singh (W.P.S.) Sidhu is associate professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. He is also an associate fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and a guest faculty at the NATO Defense College.