The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

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India and Syria: A Tough Balancing Act for New Delhi

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The 4 February vote on the Syrian crisis at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has led many commentators to declare a ‘watershed’ in Indian foreign policy.

Instead of abstaining — as it has usually done on questions regarding the Arab Spring — India voted in favour of the resolution. This has been interpreted by some as a foreign policy shift to support the West, and by others as a sign of India’s emerging power on the world stage.

But India’s vote at the UNSC is largely consistent with the cautious stance it has maintained throughout the entire Syrian crisis. From the beginning, the Indian position on Syria has focused on three things: first, condemnation of all violence and human rights violations irrespective of who the perpetrators are; second, encouraging a peaceful and inclusive political process for the resolution of the current crisis; and third, ensuring that Syria itself leads the resolution, with the latter taking into account the aspirations of all Syrians and respecting the country’s sovereignty.

India’s first official statement on Syria at the UNSC in April 2011 embodied this balance, highlighting the ramifications of ‘prolonged instability’ in the country, but also drawing attention to the fact that both sides of the conflict have committed acts of violence. When India, Brazil and South Africa visited senior officials in Damascus in August 2011, New Delhi reaffirmed its commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, condemned violence from all sides and encouraged President Assad to end violence and introduce political reforms. This balance continued when India abstained from a UN Human Rights Council vote on Syria later that month, noting that finger-pointing was no substitute for constructive dialogue.

Even as the death toll climbed later in the year and it became clear the Assad regime had no intention of reforming, India abstained during a UNSC resolution in October 2011, resisting substantial Western pressure. In explaining his country’s vote, Hardeep Puri, India’s permanent representative to the UN, said the threat of sanctions did not accommodate New Delhi’s concerns and the resolution did not condemn the violence perpetrated by the Syrian opposition. The October resolution was subsequently vetoed by Russia and China.

Many see India’s decision to vote for the UNSC resolution this February, rather than abstaining, as signalling a dramatic departure from its habitual Syria policy. They cite various reasons, including the West’s increased pressure on New Delhi, the growing death toll in Syria and India’s growing realisation that its energy interests in the Gulf states ultimately matter more. Yet the facts suggest continuity rather than change in India’s position. As Indian officials repeatedly mentioned when explaining their vote, New Delhi only decided to support the resolution after its reservations regarding regime change, sanctions and military intervention were addressed and the resolution’s language was watered down. Far from bowing to Western pressure, India was part of a group of countries working to resist it. In fact, according to some accounts, the resolution was so weak that even Russia considered supporting it until the collapse of last minute talks with the US.

As if to confirm the consistency of the Indian position, Vinay Kumar, India’s acting permanent representative to the UN, reiterated New Delhi’s long-held policy on Syria on 13 February. He expressed concern over the present situation, condemning violence from all sides, and called for a peaceful and inclusive political process led by the Syrian people. Contrary to some who read India’s latest UNSC vote as an abandonment of the Assad regime or an alignment with Western positions on Syria, Kumar noted that India believed ‘the leadership of Syria is a matter for the Syrian people to decide’. India also attended the 70-member ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Tunis as an observer soon after the UNSC vote.

While there remains a chance that India’s position on Syria will shift in the future, this seems doubtful at present. Much like its silence on other questions regarding the Arab Spring — from Libya to Bahrain to Egypt — India is trying to walk a tightrope and avoid taking bold stances. And while there may be many at home and abroad who wish that New Delhi were more assertive in its foreign policy, they should not be surprised if they continue to be disappointed, or fool themselves into seeing change where none exists.

This article was originally published at the East Asia Forum.

Picture: Corbisimages.com

 

India and the Security Council Permanent Seat

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With great power, everyone from Jesus to FDR to Stan Lee seems to think, comes great responsibility, scrutiny and accountability. India would do well to remember this as it continues to campaign for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

I would emphasize, first of all, that India’s canvassing for a permanent seat today is profoundly ironic from a historical perspective. We now know, thanks to Shashi Tharoor, that India’s Prime Minister at the time, Jawarhal Nehru, who was deeply skeptical of power politics, rebuffed a similar offer in 1953 from the United States and suggested that it instead be given to China. Now, Beijing, by most accounts, remains the chief obstacle to India’s campaign agitating for a UNSC permanent seat.

Irony aside, there are three major questions one could ask regarding this issue: two have been beaten to death, and one hasn’t been asked.

The first is whether a permanent seat for India is even possible. That question is pretty much resolved, in my book. Substantively, it doesn’t matter how many major countries publicly endorse India’s bid because China will veto any such measure both because of its strategic rivalry with India and, to a lesser extent, its long-standing alliance with Pakistan.

But let’s pretend for a moment that the China obstacle didn’t exist and a permanent seat were hypothetically attainable. The second question then becomes whether India deserves a seat at the table. Here, again, the answer is pretty clear. India is the world’s second largest country by population and the globe’s biggest democracy. It boasts one of the fastest growing economies (expected to expand by almost 9% this year) and the world’s fifth largest navy, and is one of the top contributors to UN peacekeeping operations with strong record on non-proliferation as a nuclear power (even if it is still outside the NPT). Going by the trite but true observation that the UNSC needs to be reformed to better reflect the current global distribution of power, India obviously deserves a seat at the table.

Most analyses often stop here and ignore an important third question: should India itself want a permanent seat, even if it deserves one and it is attainable? I emphasize India itself because I think that while Western powers – chiefly the United States – would like another democracy on the UNSC to shift the balance of power away from China and Russia and for India to assume more ‘global responsibilities’, I’m not sure if this would be good for India, or if it is even ready for this.

Many tend to answer this question symbolically. If India had long ago dreamt the dream of becoming a global power and felt it was entitled to a significant role in world politics based on its size, history and culture, then a permanent seat in the UNSC would satiate its appetite for greatness. Yet one of the central puzzles of contemporary India, Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution has argued, “[is] the large disparity between India’s own view of its “greatness” and the skepticism in this regard voiced by many others”. That’s why any comprehensive answer to the question of whether India would benefit from a UNSC permanent seat and is ready for it needs to move beyond symbolism to substance.

Viewed substantively, the answer becomes more complex, and a permanent seat could prove less beneficial and more problematic for New Delhi than it might think.

First, there will be increased pressure for India to take stronger positions on tough issues when it would ideally like to be more nuanced. Take Iran, for instance. On the one hand, New Delhi has made it more difficult for its companies to secure funding for energy deals with Iran in order to adhere to U.S. sanctions as it cozies up to Washington. But on the other, it has tried to find creative ways to circumvent this because Iran is the second-biggest supplier of crude to India after Saudi Arabia, accounting for about 14% of the country’s imports. Or Myanmar, where New Delhi since the 1990s abandoned its short-lived support for democracy and human rights and has been propping up the junta in exchange for natural resources and counter-terrorism cooperation despite its “world’s largest democracy” label.

For all states, foreign policy involves balancing ideals and interests, and India is no different. Yet one could argue it will become much harder for an emerging power with an evolving foreign policy like India to maintain this tricky balance as a permanent member of the UNSC. Not only will decisions there tend to be more high-profile, but India will also be expected to play a “more responsible” role as the world’s largest democracy and a ‘legitimate’ nuclear power on big questions of the day which may not be in line with its interests. As it is, India’s recent win of a non-permanent seat in the UNSC has already prompted such calls. Is India ready for this on a larger scale, and would a seat better serve its interests? Where would it fit in terms of a pretty clear division between France, US, and UK vs. China and Russia on some issues, for instance?

China’s record as a permanent member of the UNSC also suggests that the position is not all it is made out to be. This is particularly the case with regard to the power of the veto, which Beijing has exercised in a very limited way due to the fear of international censure and with mixed blessings in its foreign policy. China was extremely frustrated in 2007 when it had to cast its first non-Taiwan related veto in the UNSC since 1973 with regard to Burma, and spent the next few months calling on the junta to speed up reforms and increase international cooperation in the face of global pressure. And when Beijing vetoed a UN Security Council resolution advocating sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2008, it had to weather visceral international condemnation before its Olympic Games and faced further scrutiny when a Chinese arms shipment to Zimbabwe set off a political firestorm in South Africa.

India’s role as a permanent member in the UNSC will present an even greater dilemma than China’s experience suggests because it is a fractious and boisterous democracy. More will be expected out of it, foreign policy will likely become even more contentious as tougher positions become necessary, and its shift away from non-alignment may even be accelerated. In short, New Delhi will be forced to make tough calls on tricky issues at a time when its view of the world is still evolving.

Is that a good thing? Perhaps grappling with the globe’s top problems should not be viewed as a short term paralysis but necessary transition phase for Indian foreign policy in the longer term. But the point I’m trying to make here is that the question of whether India should want a permanent seat in the UNSC is at least a debatable proposition, and not one that should be blindly pursued simply because it is deserved, attainable, or symbolically beneficial. Foreign policy decisions of this magnitude ought to be made not just based on the symbolism of power or image, but the substance of policy and the constraints and dilemmas they may present in that regard.

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