The United Nations Security Council neither represents the power realities of the contemporary era nor factors the security considerations of developing countries into its structure.
While Europe is overrepresented by the presence of the United Kingdom, France and Russia, other geographical regions comprising mostly developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America are underrepresented. The developing countries’ security concerns have needed to be represented by China as the only permanent member from the Asian continent.
The UN, in the current century, has to deal primarily with the security problems of the Third World as intra-state conflicts and civil wars have grown manifold compared with inter-state wars that were part and parcel of recurring imperial struggles among Western powers. With the passage of time, while Europe has integrated under the banner of the European Union, the Cold War between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union has subsided. But the countries of Asia and Africa that once served as the colonies of imperial powers still suffer from the problems of numerous socio-economic malaise and political instabilities.
According a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report on the pattern of armed conflict, of the 49 active conflicts in 2016, 47 were fought within states and over government (22), territory (24) or both (one), indicating a clear trend toward a sharp rise in the number of intrastate conflicts compared with inter-state ones. The report further noted that Africa was the region with the highest number of active conflicts in 2016 (19) followed by Asia (15). Therefore, the permanent members of the Security Council and the developing world should have a shared security perspective.
Similarly, while the UK, France and Russia have witnessed steady declines in their military and economic power, developing countries such as India, South Africa and Brazil saw a graphical rise in their power. As making sensible use the military and economic power in the context of civil wars in the developing world is imperative, the developing countries with fewer hard-power resources may fare better in this regard than many powerful countries.
It must be noted that the UN Security Council still reflects the post-World War II power realities. In fact, the idea germinated among the Allied powers to manage and regulate international politics while that war was still raging. It is pertinent to note that the US president at the time, Franklin Roosevelt, unfolded such a plan in an after-dinner conversation at the White House in May 1942 to the foreign minister of the USSR, Vyacheslav Molotov. The US president believed that the US, the USSR, Britain and China could police the world in the aftermath of the war. His thinking underlying such a belief was that their power position and combined population of more than a billion could go a long way in defending small and incapable nations.
However, more than their intentions of protecting incapable countries from aggression, crude realities guided the formation of the UN Security Council. After the war, the US wanted China to be a permanent member to contain Japanese power ambitions in Asia. Britain wanted another colonial power, France, in the Security Council to meet formidable challenges stemming from anti-colonial forces demanding independence.
The fact that needs to be underlined is that the geographical representation of Third World countries assumes significance not merely for the sake of accommodating aspirations of different regions; rather, it is vital in view of the changing power realities and notions of security
The fact that needs to be underlined is that the geographical representation of Third World countries assumes significance not merely for the sake of accommodating aspirations of different regions; rather, it is vital in view of the changing power realities and notions of security.
The UN operation in Somalia in the 1990s pointed to the Western troops’ incapability and impatience in understanding socio-economic and political problems confronting the people there, which eventually led to the withdrawal of US and other Western troops and turned the operation into largely a Third World–led effort. Similarly, while there was hardly any effort to contain genocide in Rwanda, Afghanistan was allowed to continue to boil until American security came under direct threat from extremists.
In Bosnia, differences in perspectives on the use of military power between the UN and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization became clear, with NATO stressing the effective use of military power and the UN emphasizing observation of restraint.
Postwar scenarios in countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria explain how civil-war conditions needed a more nuanced approach to dealing with the ground realities rather than hard-hitting responses from the US and NATO.
Reforms at the UN Security Council would go a long way in addressing differences in security perspectives that are primarily allied to the issue of representation of the developing world.
China as representative of the developing world
For most of its evolution as a prominent economic and military power, China was barely inclined to identify itself formally with the largest multilateral bodies of the developing world such as the Non-Aligned Movement and Group of 77. China’s contentment with observer status within the NAM and major statements being issued as position papers on behalf of “G77 and China” point to this fact.
The letter and spirit of what Deng Xiaoping said to his party cadre way back in 1990 pointed to China’s individualistic aspirations at the time. He said: “Some developing countries would like China to become the leader of the Third World. But we absolutely cannot do that – this is one of our basic state policies. We cannot afford to do it, and besides, we are not strong enough. There is nothing to be gained by playing that role. We would only lose most of our initiatives.”
These remarks were at odds with the developing countries’ expectations of the most populous country of the world representing the largest landmass of the developing world as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. For the most part, China during that period considered UN peacekeeping operations interference with national sovereignty and disparaged them.
In the first decade of this century, while Beijing’s contribution to peacekeeping operations surpassed that of most Western countries, it still lagged far behind other developing countries such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh or Nigeria. For instance, China committed 2,200 peacekeepers while it maintained a standing army of more than 2 million in 2009.
China is transforming its image, as it had not only significantly enhanced its contribution to the UN peacekeeping budget from 3% in 2013 to 10.25% by 2018, it has a standing peacekeeping force of 8,000, comprising six infantry battalions, three companies of engineers, two transport companies, four second-grade hospitals, four security companies, three fast-reaction companies, two medium-sized multipurpose helicopter units, two transport aircraft units, one drone unit, and one surface naval ship, which make it the largest troop contributor of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
It has not only contributed to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) worldwide, according to a UN Development Program report, it has offered its mediating role in the Afghan peace process as well as the settlement of the Rohingya refugee issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar as a regional peace broker. Beijing also announced a new package of aid and loans to more than 50 African leaders visiting Beijing for the seventh Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) last September.
As China chose to rise as an insular power, for the most part its climb to economic and military prominence and upsurge in engagements with the international community has aroused skepticism in several quarters. While Beijing’s far-reaching influence in the African continent has been acclaimed as benign in China and among many African countries, its declaration of aid without any strings attached has aroused suspicion among many other countries and observers.
There have been allegations that Chinese aid has been channeled to realize various political objectives, such as gaining continued legitimacy for its Communist Party leadership and support for its one-China policy. Rather than concentrating more on building human-resource capacity in Africa, China allegedly directed its engagement in building heavy infrastructure, which engendered perceptions that these might be used for strategic purposes.
Beijing’s claim that its deployment of nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean was targeted at anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, and establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, further corroborated such suspicions over Chinese intentions.
Even while China has taken up an enhanced peacekeeping role as evidenced in Mali, South Sudan and Darfur, Chinese state media chose to project it as a Chinese achievement, showing tinge of nationalistic pride. According to Logan Pauley of the Stimson Center, a think-tank in Washington, China’s embrace of a larger role in UN peacekeeping has raised suspicions that it might be training and preparing its troops by “providing them opportunities to improve its military operations other than war (MOOTW) and modernize its security forces.”
The debate must continue on including leading countries from the developing world such as Brazil, South Africa and India as permanent members as a way to make the UN Security Council more democratic, representing developing countries’ security interests as well as the changing power realities.