NEW DELHI — Sixty years after its establishment, the United Nations is at a crossroads, its future direction and authority uncertain, even as it struggles with the diminution of its role in world affairs. Reforms are essential to revitalize the U.N.’s role, shore up its legitimacy and make it politically more relevant to 21st-century realities. Yet the issue of reforms is getting ensnared in sharpening international power politics.

This is evident from a series of developments. China’s officially scripted mob protests against Japan last month appeared designed to torpedo Tokyo’s bid to become a permanent member of an enlarged U.N. Security Council. By opposing Japan, Beijing seeks to block any expansion of the council’s permanent membership, as it has made evident by insisting on unanimity within the U.N. General Assembly on any reform proposal and by criticizing the draft resolution on enlargement unveiled by an aspiring Group of Four (G4) nations.

The United States, for its part, has warned the four — Brazil, Germany, India and Japan — not to press for veto power in their joint campaign for council permanent seats. Russia, too, is reluctant to extend veto authority to new permanent members. Russian President Vladimir Putin stated in India early this year that Moscow wanted to “preserve the Security Council’s existing decision-making integrity.”

It is clear that the present Permanent Five (P-5) wish to protect their power and prerogative in the omnipotent Security Council — the hub of all critical decision-making in the U.N. system.

After more than a decade of endless debate, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has suggested a decision on council expansion by the time world leaders meet at a summit scheduled for September. China, the U.S. and Russia, however, have come out against Annan’s cut-off date, opposing what they call “artificial deadlines” and demanding the broadest consensus on reforms — not a vote in the General Assembly as sought by the G4. Building consensus is a way to kill expansion.

The world has changed fundamentally since the founding of the U.N. power structure on the spoils of World War II victory. Today, while there may be differences among member-states on how to reform the U.N. or on whom to select as new council permanent members, the choice facing the U.N. is stark: reform or perish. If no agreement is reached on reforms in the near future, the world body could find itself on the path of irreversible decline.

It is thus important that, in seeking to hold on to their special powers and prerogatives, the P-5 states not cut the ground from under their feet. They have to recognize that the existing U.N. power structure is no longer sustainable. Also, they cannot indefinitely persist with decision-making procedures that make open meetings, transparency and inclusiveness the exception rather than the rule.

With U.N. membership having ballooned from 51 states in 1945 to 191 now, the old-structured Security Council appears less of a body representing its wide membership and more of a traditional syndicate run by one superpower, one rising power in Asia and three declining powers of Europe.

Yet, with a major power game being played out over the proposed expansion of the Security Council, it will be a surprise if new permanent members are chosen by September, with or without veto authority. If there is no accord on reforms by September, a new strategy to force an expansion will have to be devised by the G4. This can happen only if the group remains united amid wily attempts to split it.

One glaring attempt has been China’s support of Brazil and Germany while belligerently seeking to block Tokyo’s bid. The U.S., conversely, has extended open support only to Japan’s bid. For China, the prospect of Japan and India joining the council’s permanent membership is a strategic nightmare. It will undercut its goal to dominate Asia.

The issue of expansion, already tied to the sharpening competition for global influence and resources, has the potential for determining a future unipolar or multipolar Asia. In stridently opposing Tokyo’s bid, China feels no similar need to openly go against New Delhi’s candidacy, because if Japan cannot join the council, neither can India. At issue is the inclusion of the G4 states plus two from Africa. So why would China take on both peers when opposing one will suffice?

During his recent stop in New Delhi, ahead of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao played a clever but ominous game of proclaiming half-support for New Delhi’s bid (which was as good as a nonendorsement) while bluntly laying out what lower-level Chinese diplomats had hinted at for weeks earlier: China will not allow Japan to assume a permanent seat until it “faces up to history squarely.”

It was Wen’s wanton use of Indian territory to attack a natural ally of India that set the stage for China’s orchestrated anti-Japanese mob protests — a double-edged sword that could one day help turn Chinese citizens, having tasted the effects of popular power, against their own Leninist rulers.

China’s verbal assault on Japan has exemplified the obstacles to council expansion. But it has also raised questions about Beijing’s selective remembrance. Before asking Japan for yet another apology for its atrocities during World War II, shouldn’t China face up to its more recent history of naked aggression and apologize to Tibetans, Indians and Vietnamese?

The Beijing military museum holds India responsible for the 1962 Himalayan war, while Chinese textbooks preach nothing but hatred toward Japan and paint India negatively.

And how about an apology for China’s covert transfers of nuclear-weapon designs and missiles to Pakistan — reckless conduct that calls into question its suitability to keep its own council seat?

With council expansion running into growing resistance from entrenched interests, the G4 will have to up the ante. One option would be for the group, along with South Africa, Egypt and maybe Nigeria, to withdraw from all U.N. activity for two years from 2006. With Japan alone contributing nearly 20 percent, compared to China’s trifling 0.1 percent, this action will spell financial and political trouble for the U.N. No action, however, can yield results without complete unity.

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