When India defeated China at the United Nations

Updated on Aug 23, 2020 05:54 AM IST

It was in 2011-12. And it was perhaps the only time that India and China had faced off at the UN in an election and we prevailed, and that too decisively

Nothing could have pleased us more than conveying the result to New Delhi. The result was: India had received 106 out of 183 votes cast. China 77(AFP)
Nothing could have pleased us more than conveying the result to New Delhi. The result was: India had received 106 out of 183 votes cast. China 77(AFP)
ByManjeev Singh Puri

As a member of the UN Security Council in 2011-2012, India beat China. Here is how.

UN member-states are divided into five geographical groups, and every effort is made to avoid contests in elections to various UN bodies by ensuring clean slates, i.e. the number of candidates and seats allotted to the group match. Contested elections, therefore, tend to be high prestige diplomatic battles. China, at least pre-Covid-19, was a heavyweight player, with its aid bounties spread across the developing world and the heft of its veto-bearing permanent membership of the SC.

The Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) is the UN’s independent oversight and evaluation arrangement. It is based in Geneva with 11 members (known as inspectors) serving in their personal capacity. The tradition is for an inspector to serve two five-year terms at a stretch. The inspectors are elected (technically “appointed”) by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and not chosen by the Secretary-General.

Till 2011, India had an inspector only once at the JIU from 1968-1977. After informal conversations within the Asian group, India put up its Permanent Representative in Geneva, who was retiring soon, as a candidate for the JIU for the five-year term (2013-2017).

China was completing a ten-year stint in 2012 and should have taken a break from the JIU. But it also announced a candidate for the one seat at the JIU from Asia for the same term. This set up a straight contest between India and China.

In October 2010, India had been elected to the Security Council (SC) following a huge campaign, and after securing a record 187 votes from 192 UN member-states. While service on the SC, rather than elections, was our priority, China had left us little option but to contest. We obviously left no stone unturned in New York, with the Permanent Representative himself in the lead, as we vigorously pursued our outreach and made deals with all UN member-states.

The election was on November 22, and the process began a little after 10 am. Since voting in the UN is in person, I was immediately struck by the thin attendance as I entered the UN General Assembly hall. My immediate instinct was to ask all my colleagues in the Permanent Mission to get on to their cellphones and gently but persuasively push delegates, especially from favourably disposed countries, to rush to the UNGA. Anticipating such a situation, we had prepared an extensive directory of mobile numbers of election officers in other Permanent Missions.

The next shock was a young diplomat from a neighbouring country, generally thought to be friendly to us, being wary of giving a thumbs-up response. Without realising that it would be late in the night in his capital, I dialled our ambassador there and received confirmation that the country was going the other way. But it had to be chin-up and confidence as the ballot papers were circulated, collected, and then counted.

Finally, just after noon, the result was announced: India had received 106 out of 183 votes cast. China 77. What a victory!

Nothing could have pleased us more than conveying the result to New Delhi. This was, perhaps, the only time that India and China had faced off at the UN in an election and we had prevailed and that too decisively. Incidentally, the Chinese candidate was their ambassador in New Delhi.

(This is the second in a series of monthly articles on India at the UNSC and stories of high diplomacy, as India returns to the Council in 2021)
Manjeev S Puri is former ambassador and India’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN
The views expressed are personal
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