UNSC: A diplomatic ‘two-front’ war

Stoking diplomatic deadwood in the hope that the embers may catch fire is a parlour game at the United Nations. One of our neighbours — Pakistan — has indulged in this for years. “The India-Pakistan Question”, inscribed on the United Nations Security Council (SC)’s agenda on January 6, 1948, was last considered by SC on November 5, 1965. Yet, on the annual requests of Pakistan, the item has remained an inert part of the Council’s formal agenda. These requests are followed by sundry communications, in a bid to stir the pot. They are circulated and filed. No one is bothered. Then, in August 2019, following changes to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)’s special status provided in the Indian Constitution, China weighed in favour of its “iron brother” and initiated what was akin to a diplomatic “two-front war”.

Using its perch on the Council, China took over the driver’s seat of this venture. Since China did not have the requisite majority to call for a formal meeting, it requested an informal consultation. China proposed a draft outcome statement and lobbied for support. The tussle was transformed into one between a Permanent Member of the Council — China; and a non-member of the Council — India. Pakistan was the cat’s paw in the equation.

The duo threw everything into the fray. They argued along the following three axes. Contrary to previous Council decisions, India changed the status quo, violating international law. The change resulted in large-scale human rights violations, leading to a serious humanitarian situation. This, along with India’s military assertiveness along the Line of Control constituted a threat to international peace and security. The Council, which is responsible for maintenance of international peace and security, needed to respond.

The same talk that we hear now on India-China issues was voiced then. Can India take on an economy five times its size? Can actions evoking criticism domestically be shielded from global scrutiny? Will a global power, which had sewn up vast swathes with its Belt and Road Initiative, not get broad support against a mid-sized delegation with limited resources?

A blow-by-blow account is left for another time. Suffice it to say that then, as now, hubris of global overreach was on display. Then, as now, quiet diplomacy was in play. Then, as now, despite the disparity in the power equation, some stay silent. Then, as now, key partners weigh in our favour. The closed-door outcome was better than expected. The public diplomacy victory was the icing on the cake.

More efforts — including one earlier this week — have been made. These follow a slightly different tack. Pakistan writes a letter to the president of the Council. China follows up to raise the matter during closed, informal consultations under “Any Other Business”. The “pinprick” doesn’t yield anything, as overwhelmingly, others aren’t interested. The rubric “Any Other Business” can be used by anyone, to raise anything. Some have used it to prick China about Hong Kong, and in course of discussions also referred to the treatment of Uighurs. Others target Russia by raising matters not on the active agenda. In short, failed “pinpricks” are par for the course. Our overcoming such efforts provides useful “lessons learnt”.

First, in August 2019, the People’s Republic of China took the unprecedented step of trying to extricate an agenda item that it had historically never engaged with. When the item was last considered in 1965, it was the Republic of China whose representative sat on the Council. China invalidated the oft-repeated shibboleth that it will handle “differences through peaceful discussion” bearing in mind “sensitivities and concerns”. Despite not succeeding, China keeps trying in other ways. Try, try and try again seems their theme song; never letting our guard down needs to be ours.

Second, China, an authoritarian autocracy averse to invoking human rights concerns in Council discussions, opportunistically masqueraded as a champion of human rights in J&K in August 2019. China used a double-edged weapon against us. When those who partner us in thwarting Chinese efforts accuse China of violating human rights, we need to consider whether to continue the approach of keeping our distance or work with them on such issues.

Third, when China initially pushed for a discussion on J&K, it cloaked itself as a “concerned” member of the international community. China’s interests in owning a suitable piece of real estate in the region were not obvious to all. China’s actions this summer are increasingly viewed as of a full-fledged party to a dispute. Should it keep treading this path, someone or the other can raise concerns about China’s role, which can lead to China attracting UN provisions that apply to parties to a dispute.

Fourth, when confronting “wolf warriors”, we need to better understand the “wolf totem” too. China’s manoeuvres on one front tend to presage, at times, other interventions and may possibly be a precursor to developments on other fronts. We, therefore, require greater coherence in our approach to China, across the board.

Fifth, the broader takeaway is that in a fast-evolving multipolar order, bilateral differences among the poles are best addressed appropriately, rather than taken to multilateral platforms and nurtured as disputes. If a pole still persists, then, at best, it would be a “pinprick”, nothing more. No pole, irrespective of its weight relative to the others, can easily sway the rest to the detriment of another pole. The “de facto” realities of a multipolar world are resetting the “de jure” world of multilateralism.

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