India and the UN Security Council

US President Barack Obama's US call this week for India to be made a permanent member of the Security Council was not a difficult one to make. It was not new but drives another wedge between India and China yet at the same time stands little chance of success in the near future, at least unless there is a much bigger expansion of the Council permanent membership.

But Obama's raising of the issue has served as a reminder of the fact that China has a very privileged position as the only non-western and non-European permanent member – members who are not only always on the council but have veto rights.

Indeed China is a major beneficiary of the global system, established in 1946, which it frequently criticizes. Back then the likes of India and Indonesia and much of the rest of Asia and almost all of Africa were under colonial rule. Latin America was not taken seriously by either the west or the Soviets. China may have been wracked by civil war and highly dependent on US support but it was given a seat to provide the Council with a more global look and in recognition of its fight against Japan

That benefit was denied to Beijing between 1949 and 1971 when the Republic of China (Taiwan) was replaced by the Peoples Republic. And even since then China has been careful not to make waves in the Council and show a cooperative face to the world. It has very rarely used its veto power.

But its privileged position looks more and more anomalous as reform of the 1945 institutions – including the IMF and World Bank – to reflect current realities is more and more in demand. So China looks on the defensive in criticizing suggestions that India be given a status equal to its own.

Suspicions of China's big power ambitions have been rising without this reminder that it already has that status in one major respect. Although China is willing to see expansion of Security Council membership, including of permanent ones, it is opposed to the newcomers having veto powers.

There is scant likelihood of India getting its way and either becoming the sixth permanent member or Britain and France making way for it by agreeing to amalgamate their seats into a single one for the European Union. The EU's premier country, Germany, is hankering after changes in a system which derived from its 1945 defeat .But lacking global clout in other ways, Britain and France will not surrender their prestigious position.

The issue of Security Council enlargement has been on the table for nearly 20 years, led by Germany and Japan, the UN's largest contributors, and in agreement with India and Brazil.

Any prospect of India being allowed to join but no one else is also viewed with hostility by other aspirants. As for Japan, China has a veto on its hopes of joining unless there is a big expansion.

Obama's call has had the desired effect of adding to US diplomatic gains with India and its people. But achieving any changes in the Security Council system face so many conflicting interests – and the veto powers of the existing members – that India is likely to remain frustrated.

In recent years various reform proposals have been put forward. All involve expansion of the Council but there is disagreement on which countries should be chosen and which, if any, should be permanent members and whether any more should have veto powers.

For instance, Spanish-speaking Latin America wants one of their own – not Brazil which is the obvious candidate on the basis of size and power. In Europe, Italy wants a bigger expansion which would include itself rather than just five permanent newcomers. Africa needs a member but who? South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt? Some want a Muslim majority country but the Middle Eastern ideological centers of Islam have little in common with Islam's population centers in Asia, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Any expansion of veto powers would likely make the Council even less an effective authority than now. Indeed, with the world now more complex than in 1946 the veto power should probably regarded as an outdated relic. But holders will not give it up. The US has been a particularly frequent user, mainly in defense of Israel and its occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory.

The net result of all of these cross-currents is that although reform and enlargement of the Council is deemed necessary by almost everyone, there has been no progress towards a consensus. Till there is India's hopes will remain just that.