Security Council reform: China signals its veto.

Author:Malik, J. Mohan
 
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The long-awaited landmark report on reforming the United Nations will most likely dominate the agenda when the General Assembly convenes next September. Among the high-level panel's 101 recommendations, the most contentious relates to the expansion of the Security Council to 24 members from its current 15, of which 5 permanent members--Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States--wield veto power. The ten nonpermanent members are currently elected to two-year terms.

Security Council reform has been on the agenda for more than a decade. But member nations have failed to agree on how big the council should become and whether other nations should be given veto powers. No single proposal has ever won majority support. As a result, the Security Council continues to reflect the global power structure of 1945, when the five Second World War victors (the "P-5") acquired their privileged status. Virtually the only common factor among the five is that all are legal nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In its present form, the council also remains imbalanced in favor of the industrialized North. Critics have long argued that the council is both undemocratic and anachronistic, and that its effectiveness and legitimacy cannot be sustained unless it is transformed to reflect today's world. To that end, Secretary General Kofi Annan named and nurtured the high-level panel.

However, the reluctance of the P-5 to entertain any change undermining their status remains a major stumbling block. The report supports the belief that a revamped Security Council should reflect the political, economic, military, and demographic realities of today's world if it is to deal with new threats to international security, notably terrorism, failed states, nuclear proliferation, poverty, and violence. Recent crises--the Kosovo war, the Iraq imbroglio, the humanitarian disasters in Rwanda and Sudan--have given fresh urgency to reform efforts.

Unfortunately, the high-level panel failed to agree on one proposal and instead suggested two options to broaden the membership of the Security Council. (1) Option A would add six new permanent members--the likely candidates are India, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Egypt, and either Nigeria or South Africa--as well as three new two-year-term nonpermanent members. Option B would create a new tier of eight semipermanent members chosen for renewable four-year terms and add one two-year-term seat to the existing ten. Neither option, however, extends veto power beyond the existing five permanent members. That even this panel of 16 eminent diplomats and public servants was unable to agree upon a single model for expansion is indicative of the difficulties that lie ahead. It also reflects a wider reality: the politics and the prospects of Security Council reform do not look very promising, especially in light of China's views, as described below.

India, Japan, Brazil, and Germany have been mentioned most often among the likely candidates for permanent membership. All four nations have been lobbying for years for inclusion. Japan is the world organization's second-largest financial contributor after the United States, the largest aid donor, a nonnuclear economic giant, and a potential contributor of troops to peace-keeping operations. Germany too makes a significant financial contribution to the U.N. budget. India has asserted for more than a decade that its claim is "natural" and "legitimate" since it is the world's largest democracy and a rapidly growing economic power, and possesses a sizable military establishment willing to share the burden of peacekeeping in some of the world's most dangerous places. The other contenders for permanent membership are regional powers such as Brazil, representing Latin America, and South Africa, Egypt, and/or Nigeria, which could speak for Africa in an expanded council.

Anticipating the report on council reform, leaders of India, Japan, Germany, and Brazil agreed at last year's General Assembly to back each other's bids for permanent seats. The unity of this Group of Four (G-4) has not only added impetus to the reform process but also given critical strength to their claim. Soon after the panel's report was made public, the G-4 delegates met with Kofi Annan to support the panel's Option A and also urged that the new permanent members be given veto power. (2)

Yet the fate of reform depends crucially on the attitude of the existing permanent members. The Bush administration has supported Japan's bid for a permanent seat, but it has reserved its judgment on other potential candidates. (3) Former Clinton administration officials have on several occasions designated India and Japan (along with Brazil and South Africa) as "legitimate candidates" for membership. (4) India has also gained support from three of the five permanent members, Britain, France, and Russia, as well as from other powers (Afghanistan, New Zealand, Mongolia, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam). Britain, France, and Russia support the inclusion of Germany, Brazil, and one African and/or Islamic country. In contrast, China has maintained an ambiguous stance on the membership issue and kept its cards close to the chest on the contentious veto issue while periodically calling for reform of the Security Council. A key question is how China, the only Asian member of the P-5 club, perceives bids for permanent membership by its Asian rivals--India and Japan--especially given Beijing's quest for superpowerdom.

Beijing's long-declared position is to support Security Council enlargement provided it "takes due account of the principle of equitable geographical distribution and accommodates the interests of developing countries." (5) Until recently, China had deliberately avoided expressing support for any country. However, in a significant departure, President Jiang Zemin offered encouragement to Germany and Brazil during official visits to those countries in 2002, despite Beijing's stated position that the council is already overrepresented by "rich and white" nations. At the same time, Chinese leaders persistently refuse to endorse India's or Japan's bid, seemingly because doing so might undercut Beijing's role as the sole permanent Asian voice in the council. What distinguishes China from Japan and India is both permanent membership and declared nuclear status, thus making it a far more important player in international forums and the sole Asian negotiating partner of the United States on global security matters. China's Asia strategy thus obliges Beijing to keep Japan and India out of the veto-holding club. Beijing also fears that with Japan and India inside, Washington, when its interests were at stake, could work around Russian intransigence and French resistance, and outweigh Chinese opposition. (6) Moreover, China has always been resentful of Japan's wartime occupation, and suspicious of India's great power ambitions, and has therefore been holding out for the status quo with respect to new Asian membership. In fact, China's vociferous opposition to its Asian rivals' bids may well now be the major obstacle to the realization of their aspirations.

Without elaborating on China's stand on countries seeking permanent membership, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhang Qiyue, welcomed the high-level panel's proposals on "enhanc{ing} the international collective security mechanism with the U.N. at its core," and emphasized the need for consensus: "Any reform scenario should be discussed by the U.N. members in a democratic manner so that extensive consensus can be reached. The U.N. reform is concerned with interests of every member country, and there are still many differences in this regard." (7) Beijing is well aware of the nature of these "many differences" and how difficult it is to achieve an "extensive consensus" in "a democratic manner" that addresses the "interests of every member country." It is noteworthy that Qian Qichen, a former Chinese foreign minister and still an influential voice in Beijing, was one of the 16 eminent persons named by Kofi Annan to the high-level panel, which included, among others, former U.S. national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Russian premier Yevgeny Primakov.

Dragon on the Security Council

A valuable insight into Chinese thinking is provided in a commentary in the authoritative Beijing Review of May 13, 2004, by the Chinese Foreign Ministry analyst, Wu Miaofa, which, for the first time, spelled out "five principles" for reform of the Security Council. (8) A critical scrutiny of these "principles" (in effect, "conditions") reveals them to be self-serving, impractical...

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