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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.