India at the U.N.: 'The Days When a Few Nations Set the Agenda Are Over'
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Indian External Relations Minister S. Jaishankar declared during his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday that “the days when a few nations set the agenda and expected others to fall in line are over,” positioning India as a top role model for the developing world.

Jaishankar avoided naming the growing number of countries that India has found itself embroiled in diplomatic disputes against this year – most prominently China, which routinely violates its borders, and Canada, which recently accused its government of assassination – but pointedly rejected “exercises in cherry-picking” and demanded international legal rules apply equally to all nations.

He especially expressed scorn for unnamed countries allegedly guilty of hypocrisy on the issue of terrorism and prioritizing geopolitical conflicts. The barbs were apparently meant for geopolitical rival Pakistan and for the European Union, which has struggled to convince Indian politicians to treat the Russian invasion of Ukraine as more than a distant regional problem.

India opened Tuesday’s session of the General Assembly, the last of its annual high-level debate until September 2024.

“Diplomacy and dialogue are the only effective solutions. The international order is diverse and we must cater for divergences, if not differences,” Jaishankar advised the U.N. “The days when a few nations set the agenda and expected others to fall in line are over.”

Jaishankar lamented that “for all the talk, it is still a few nations who shape the agenda and seek to define the norms” and suggested India would actively combat the current standards of the United Nations.

“This cannot go on indefinitely. Nor will it go unchallenged,” he asserted.

Jaishankar did not name the “few nations” that India hoped would wane in influence, offering only as a hint the oft-repeated call to reform the United Nations Security Council structure to allow more countries permanent seats on the panel. The Security Council – while largely defanged, still the most powerful arm of the United Nations – allows only five countries permanent seats: America, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and France. Many advocates of revamping the Security Council system note that India is the world’s largest democracy and most populous nation, and had yet to gain independence from the British Empire when the Security Council was established in 1945.

“Mr. President, it was also noteworthy that at India’s initiative, the African Union was admitted as a permanent member of the G20. By doing so, we gave voice to an entire continent which has long been its due,” Jaishankar explained, highlighting a major achievement of New Delhi’s in hosting this year’s G20 summit.

“This significant step in reform should inspire the United Nations, a much older organization, to also make the Security Council contemporary. Broad representation is after all, a pre-requisite for both effectiveness and credibility,” he asserted.

India’s presence on the Security Council would likely serve to redirect much of the attention of the panel away from Ukraine to other conflicts, such as the civil war in Sudan, the post-Obama chaos in Libya, or the still unresolved Kashmir dispute between itself and Pakistan. Indian diplomats, Jaishankar prominent among them, have conceded that the Ukraine invasion is a grave situation but accused European leaders of hypocrisy in demanding India cut its friendly ties to Russia as a result.

“Europe imported, in the same period, six times the energy which India did,” Jaishankar observed in January, in response to calls for India to stop importing energy from Russia. “If it is a matter of principle why didn’t Europe cut on the first day? Why didn’t on 25th February, a complete cut off of energy imports from Russia? You can’t say it’s my principle but by the way, I will do it by my timing.”

Another Indian diplomat, G20 negotiator Amitabh Kant, urged the world to “move on” from Ukraine at an event in March.

“Nutrition has been impacted, health outcomes have been impacted, learning outcomes have been impacted, people have become stunted and wasted and we are just concerned with one Russia and Ukraine war,” Kant asserted. “The world needs to move on and Europe needs to find a solution to its challenges.”

Jaishankar’s remarks on the Security Council did not appear as directed towards European states, however, as China. Jaishankar reportedly accused China in August of being the only permanent member of the Security Council opposing India joining that elite club. The external affairs minister also appeared to be addressing longstanding disputes with China when discussing unnamed countries “cherry-picking” on issues of sovereignty.

“Nor must we countenance that political convenience determines responses to terrorism, extremism and violence,” he asserted. “Similarly, respect for territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs cannot be exercises in cherry-picking.”

“When reality departs from rhetoric, we must have the courage to call it out. Without genuine solidarity, there can never be real trust. This is very much the sentiment of the Global South,” he asserted, later adding, “rules will work only when they apply equally to all.”

China has spent years attempting to assert sovereignty illegally over vast territories of India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), their mutual border. China’s communist government wrongly claims much of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state as “South Tibet” and has repeatedly invaded the border region of Ladakh. In June 2020, a large contingent of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers invaded an area of Ladakh known as the Galwan Valley, erecting tents and establishing operations. When Indian border soldiers confronted the PLA troops, they attacked, prompting the deadliest military battle between India and China in decades. India reported about 20 soldiers killed and claimed to have killed 40 Chinese troops. China to this day has only admitted to four deaths.

Similar, though less deadly, exchanges have continued to occur in the last three years. In August, China persisted in irritating relations with India by publishing a “standard map of China” including large portions of Indian territory.

“China has put out maps with territories not theirs. Old habit,” Jaishankar sighed in remarks to India’s NDTV. “Putting out maps with parts in India doesn’t change anything. Our government is very clear about territory. Making absurd claims does not make other people’s territories yours.”

The top Indian diplomat more generally used his speech to the United Nations to defend nationalism – the pursuit of what is good for the nation over the collective world.

“Mr. President, all nations pursue their national interests. We, in India, have never seen that as being in contradiction with global good,” Jaishankar said. “When we aspire to be a leading power, this is not for self-aggrandizement but to take on greater responsibility and make more contributions. The goals we have set for ourselves will make us different from all those whose rise preceded ours.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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