India may have to take a fresh approach if it wants a seat at the UN high table, because China now has a larger moral stake in peacekeeping than ever before
A former United Nations practitioner and professor at one of the top graduate schools for international relations in the US sent me a recent UN report titled ‘Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers: We need to change the way we are doing business’.
On the face of it, the report is a long-overdue cry for robust reform in the way peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations are conducted in strife-torn regions of the world.
But what alerted me was that the report was written by an accomplished retired Brazilian lieutenant general who was a force commander at two UN missions, and assisted by a US colonel who retired from the UN and a special assistant to the director, Africa II Division.
Before I could ask where was India in this report, I got my answer: The report is part of ‘The Improving Security Peacekeeping’ project, funded by the People’s Republic of China through the United Nations Peace and Development Trust Fund, Peace and Security Sub-Fund for 2017.
China’s peacekeeping expansion
Barbara Crossette from the Huffington Post argues that “as China has projected its economic and military power more widely not only in Asia but also in Africa and to some extent in Latin America, little notice has been paid by the public to another arena of growing influence: United Nations peacekeeping”.
In September 2017, China placed before the world an 8,000-strong peacekeeping force by officially registering it with much fanfare and linking it to giving ‘its soldiers a chance to experience real-life combat situations’.
The move was the fulfilment of a commitment that President Xi Jinping made to the UN in 2015. The force is an integrated task force, comprising infantry, mechanised transport, engineers, helicopters and even unmanned aerial vehicles and drones.
Extracting its pound of flesh, China has moved quickly and ensured that one of its major generals with extensive diplomatic experience has was made force commander in the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
Currently, the largest contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping from among the permanent members of the Security Council, China has stepped up its financial contribution to the cash-starved organisation, and now ranks only after the US and Japan as major donors to the UN.
India’s diminishing role
India, on the other hand, ranks a lowly 24th in the overall list of donors, contributing 0.737 per cent of the UN budget. Even countries like Brazil contribute 3.823 per cent (2016 figures). Figures for 2017 would vary only marginally.
India’s argument for greater visibility in the UN is punctuated repeatedly by assertions of commitment and sacrifice as the largest aggregate contributors in terms of manpower to peacekeeping operations since the formation of the UN. India has also suffered the greatest number of casualties — over 350 — during the same period. It has also provided 11 force commanders and five deputy commanders to date, and three military advisers at the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
However, the senior leadership contribution from the Indian military has petered out over the last two decades, with Major-General Vijay Jetley having been the last to command large multi-national forces in a strife-torn region in 2000. This is certainly not a flattering record for a nation whose military has grown exponentially since, and aspires to join the high table. Sending forces is not enough; we must pitch for leadership roles in various segments.
What India can do
The report that sparked this article is an excellent one that argues the case for more robust, proactive, preventive, and even preemptive strategies to mitigate risk. India could surely have pitched in with a meaningful intellectual contribution to this paper. Obviously, that was not possible, considering that China funded the project.
I also wonder when the last paper/report from the Indian military-diplomatic structure has made an impact on UN peacekeeping strategy. Notwithstanding some dissonant voices from academia and think tanks that call for a reduction in its peacekeeping commitments in Africa, India cannot be outmuscled by China in a space that it has dominated for over six decades.
While domestic security constraints may limit the scaling up of contingents, there is a need to evolve fresh strategies to do more with less, particularly in the contingent composition, leadership and intellectual space within the UN peacekeeping and peace enforcement structures.
India may have to take a fresh call on its approach to international peacekeeping under the UN flag if it wants to bat harder for a seat at the UN high table, with China acquiring stakes that would allow it to have a larger moral stake in that decision than before.
Amidst the growing chatter about Chinese coercive and revisionist strategies, policy makers in India must take note of such developments that point to Xi Jinping’s skills in projecting China as a responsible global player that is willing to contribute to world peace.
Arjun Subramaniam is a visiting fellow at Oxford University’s ‘changing character of war’ programme.