India beats China's 'shut-up' envoy - Victory in first direct contest in UN

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  • Published 23.11.11

New York, Nov. 22: A reporter who was asked by China’s ambassador in New Delhi a few weeks ago to “shut up” about cartographic aggression on India by commercial entities in Beijing can now have the proverbial last laugh.

But the flip side of a keenly watched election in the United Nations General Assembly today is that the reporter in question and others like him in New Delhi will probably have to put up with Zhang Yan, the controversial ambassador, for some more time.

India’s permanent representative to the UN offices in Geneva, A. Gopinathan, today convincingly defeated Zhang to assume a place on the UN’s Joint Inspection Unit for a five-year term starting on January 1, 2013.

Gopinathan got 106 votes against Zhang’s 77 in the General Assembly in a straight contest for the seat which China has held without a break for the last 10 years. Japan is the only other Asian country on the powerful body that has the responsibility for oversight of the UN.

Today’s vote was historic as the first test between India, an emerging power on the global stage and an aspirant for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and China, one of the “Big Five” in the council, long used to having its way in the world body by means fair or foul.

The victory over China is a feather in the turban for Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s permanent representative to the UN in New York. India has not only not lost a single election in the world body since Puri assumed charge in mid-2009, he has secured record victories for the country, including an election to the Security Council last year with a 99 per cent endorsement by the General Assembly.

With Gopinathan elected to the oversight body, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can tell Anna Hazare that although the Lokpal process domestically is mired in controversy and delays, India is doing fine internationally in oversight matters by shouldering responsibility as ombudsman for the UN.

Although China’s stinging defeat at India’s hands today will be remembered as a milestone in the changing equations of international diplomacy, the contest with Beijing was not a choice that New Delhi had consciously made.

With China’s current term on the Joint Inspection Unit expiring at the end of next year, India decided to put up Gopinathan as its candidate on the assumption that Beijing will not nominate one of its own for the election. The convention here is that a country which has served two five-year terms bows out in favour of another state from the same geographical area.

But reflecting China’s notoriously new-found assertiveness in international affairs, Beijing defied convention and nominated its ambassador in New Delhi for this post a day after Gopinathan had emerged from South Block’s long and winding red tape as the Indian candidate.

By then, it was too late for India to pull out from the election: besides, doing so would have meant running away from a fight with China and loss of face before the international community. But Indian diplomats in New York and Geneva repeatedly asserted that a contest against China was not one of New Delhi’s making.

In a pamphlet distributed extensively to almost every foreign ministry in the world as part of a global campaign for today’s election, India argued: “Having devoted almost half of his diplomatic career to UN-related work, ambassador Gopinathan’s extensive knowledge and wide experience across the UN system will enable him to make important and effective contributions to the work of the Joint Inspection Unit and help bring about improvements in the UN system in the areas of oversight and governance, an objective shared by all UN member states.”

Sometime prior to his current accreditation to the UN offices in Geneva, Gopinathan was deputy permanent representative to the UN, his second stint in New York. Earlier, he had served in the permanent mission in New York in the 1980s and was also joint secretary for UN at the ministry of external affairs.

But the challenge before the General Assembly was that Gopinathan’s opponent had also spent 23 of his 33 years as a Chinese diplomat in multilateral work either related to the UN or other international agencies.

Therefore, ultimately the fight between the two boiled down to a choice between India and China. One diplomat at the UN who clearly voted for New Delhi’s candidate said the margin of victory “shows that India has credibility and a well-oiled machine to fight UN elections”.

Although inspectors on the UN’s oversight body serve in their personal capacities, they are elected on behalf of their governments. Before voting began today, the president of the General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser told member states twice that they should name the country of their choice on the ballot paper and not a candidate’s name.

In its campaign, India stressed the principles of “equitable geographic distribution and of reasonable rotation” in representation on the Joint Inspection Unit. It did not sit well with many UN members that Beijing was trying to perpetuate its presence on the ombudsman even after two consecutive five-year terms.

India, on the other hand, has served only once on the Unit, 35 years ago, before even its statute was formalised in December 1976. There has been no other representation from South Asia on the unit.

In its campaign pamphlet, shared with this reporter by a UN mission, India argued that “in the current global climate of persisting economic crisis, the need for realising greater ‘value for money’ by streamlining the functioning of the UN...improving the quality of services and systems of delivery and ensuring optimal synergy and co-ordination within the UN system cannot be over-emphasised”.