China seeks to dominate the UN system as no other country has done. Four of the 15 specialised agencies of the UN are now headed by Chinese nationals

The United Nations celebrated its 75th anniversary last Saturday, the day the ratifications of the Charter reached the required number for it to come into force. Surviving for so long is by far the UN’s biggest success, and this itself is no mean achievement. The UN is an inter-governmental organisation – it can only be what its members make of it. Its predecessor, the League of Nations, had collapsed within two decades due to military aggressions by the big powers leading to World War II.

The UN has survived the Cold War and the incessant quarrels among its permanent members who lord over it. It has lived in the shadow of a third world war and many admirers give it credit for averting such a war.

The primary purpose for setting up the UN was to maintain international peace and security. The five big military powers, the victors of World War II, promised to jointly protect the world from further wars. They made themselves permanent members of the Security Council to be able to fulfil this grand assurance. Since they were to act jointly, a negative vote by any of them became a veto.

The permanent five have never taken any military action jointly in these 75 years. Instead, they have used the veto 254 times between them to kill resolutions. Consequently, wars have been waged in many parts of the world, most of them with their direct or indirect involvement. The US did not have to veto any resolution on the Vietnam War because it commanded a comfortable majority in the Security Council in those days. The Soviet Union had to do so only once during the Afghanistan War.

For a brief period of two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and China allowed the Western countries to take military action on behalf of the Security Council in countries like Kuwait, former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda and Libya, but they did not join the operations. The legality of some of these military actions was questionable. But with no court to appeal to, this question has never been examined.

The short period of consensus among the permanent five vanished a decade ago and the veto once again came to be used by the US, Russia and China. The moribund Security Council now faces more serious challenges. The UN’s fate is inextricably linked with the state of the global economy, which has been sluggish since the global financial crisis of 2008. The resurgence of isolationism in the US and the rise of China have been compounded by their trade war. The COVID pandemic has made the short-term scenario gloomy all round.

The Security Council has to grow out of its five power mindset if it is to survive. The permanent members are still the world’s leading military powers, but they have undergone a sea change and the UN Charter needs to catch up. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The Republic of China has been replaced by the People’s Republic of China. Both these changes took place without an amendment to the Charter, which continues to list the older entities.

Two other permanent members, France and the United Kingdom, are no longer the global powers they were in 1945. France has joined the European Union which itself claims a special status in the UN. The UK too was a member of the EU till recently. Both retain their permanent seats but no longer have the stature to justify it.

The US is the only permanent member that retains its original form, but its commitment to multilateralism is once again in doubt. But this pales into insignificance before the much serious threat of the rise of China.

It’s a given that China will play an increasingly dominant role in the UN in the coming years. Very little thought has been given by countries to the consequences of a China-dominated international order. All permanent members have misused the veto to escape censure in the Security Council and to control other organs of the UN. But China displays utter contempt for the most basic obligation under the Charter “to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force”. Its sabre rattling against Taiwan is against the letter and spirit of the UN Charter even if it considers it to be a Chinese province.

China demonstrates no commitment to other values of the UN like democracy, human rights and the peaceful settlement of disputes. It is the only major country which is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It has also refused to honour the ruling of an international arbitration in the dispute in the South China Sea.

China seeks to dominate the UN system as no other country has done. Four of the 15 specialised agencies of the UN are now headed by Chinese nationals. Not satisfied with this, China made a bid for a fifth international organisation earlier this year. It lost in the final round to Singapore. China emulates Western countries in making voluntary donations and placing its nationals in the secretariats of international organisations. But it also adopts more questionable practices in its dealings with international civil servants.

UN reform is no longer just about adding extra chairs to accommodate the wannabes. It’s about its survival. It’s unlikely to complete its century on a pitch queered by China.