Beijing Diary

Why China hasn't backed India's UNSC bid

If Beijing was to consider a stronger statement of support when PM Narendra Modi visits China in May, such an outcome will clearly not come for free without strong bargaining.

 |  Beijing Diary  |  4-minute read |   13-02-2015
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Has China changed its long-standing position on India’s bid for a permanent seat on the five-member United Nations Security Council (UNSC)? Media reports in India yesterday suggested Beijing has shifted its stance, which would be a remarkable turnaround after years of stonewalling India’s attempts to get support for its bid. China is the only one among the P5 to not endorse India’s candidature.

The media reports were prompted by comments made by China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying in response to a question from a Brazilian journalist at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Thursday. When asked about China’s stance on its support to India and Brazil, here is what Hua said at the briefing:

"Our position is that we respect the willingness of the two countries to play a bigger role in the UNSC. We would like to reach broadest consensus through diplomatic consultations. With regard to Brazil’s application, we pay high attention to representation of developing countries. We understand and respect the willingness of Brazil to play a bigger role in the UN and other international institutions."

This has, in fact, been China’s position for years. Beijing has told India on numerous occasions that it "respects" and "supports" India’s "aspirations" and "willingness" to play a bigger role in the UNSC.

As Indian officials point out, supporting aspirations and willingness are far from a clear endorsement of India’s candidature. (As one official noted to me in a lighter vein, "I can say I support your 'aspirations' to be the President of India, but then does that really mean anything?")In fact, the Chinese Foreign Ministry made identical remarks on February 3, reiterating this stance. This followed the Russia-India-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Beijing, when the body for the first time specifically voiced its support – again, for India’s "aspirations", not candidature. This was, however, some progress for India – however limited – as China had in the past been reluctant to even specifically mention India in a multilateral forum such as RIC.

So what is China’s real position on the question of UNSC reforms? It is, as Hua herself said on Thursday, that nothing can go ahead without "a package" of consensus. "We would like to reach broadest consensus through diplomatic consultations," she said. In other words, Beijing is reluctant to voice its support to any one country up until the long-winding – and stalled – reforms process makes some headway (cynics say that may never happen).

Perhaps a more accurate reflection of China’s stance – devoid of the often confusing officialese that permeates diplomacy - was conveyed by senior official He Yafei in frank terms when he told US officials, according to State Department cables, that "diluting" the "P5 club" would leave both China and the US "in trouble".

China has also conveyed to India that it was opposed to the joint bid by the group known as G4 – India, Brazil, Japan and Germany. China has said it will never consider a Japanese bid, considering their thorny relations. So a prerequisite for voicing support for India would likely require an Indian assurance of detaching itself from G4 – a difficult prospect considering India’s warming ties with Japan.

If Beijing was to consider a stronger statement of support when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits China in May, such an outcome will clearly not come for free without strong bargaining. India would not only have to provide assurances on the G4, but also likely give Beijing something significant in return, such as a definitive statement of support on Tibet, for instance.

If there was any doubt about whether Thursday’s remarks somehow reflected a change in China’s stance, the case was effectively settled when the Chinese foreign ministry released its official transcript of Hua’s briefing later on Thursday night.

The transcript said: "We maintain that the reform of the UN Security Council should give priority to increasing the representativeness of developing countries. The Chinese side attaches great importance to the role of Brazil in international affairs, understands and supports its aspiration of playing a bigger part in the UN".

The reference to India had been expunged entirely from Hua’s remarks. That is, perhaps, a more revealing indication of where China’s position really lies.


Ananth Krishnan Ananth Krishnan @ananthkrishnan

The writer is China correspondent for India Today.

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