India’s Xinjiang Abstention: Neither Morality nor Self-Interest Clear

Originally published as ‘What national interests has India achieved by abstaining at UNHRC vote on Xinjiang?’, Moneycontrol, 14 October 2022.

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley is asked a question about what morality was — whether it was a method or if it was “vested in the aims”.

“Difficult to know what one’s aims are, that’s the trouble”, concludes the speaker.

The conversation offers a useful framework to tackle the subject of India’s abstention during a vote on a draft resolution in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a debate on the human rights situation in China’s troubled Xinjiang province.

There is conclusive proof of human rights abuses by China’s Party-State apparatus against Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang from both the UNHRC and reputable international organisations such as the Human Rights Watch. The abstention on October 6, therefore, implies several things for India’s international reputation.

One, India’s position offers the imprimatur of support by a large, democratic country in Asia to the actions of an authoritarian state that oppresses its ethnic and religious minorities. One could nit-pick and say India did not vote against the resolution, suggesting that it was not denying that human rights abuses were taking place in Xinjiang. But such finer points are often lost in the final reckoning, and in the noise of propaganda generated by China’s Party-State.

Even though China won the vote only narrowly, with 19 countries against the resolution, and 17 in favour, this was enough for it to spin a positive narrative in other countries with headlines like ‘China ends false accusations with victory in UNHRC Xinjiang vote’, in the Philippines, for example.

Two, the abstention creates the easy impression for those watching that India gave China a pass because of its own troubled record in Kashmir. Yet China’s recent record gives India no reason to be so generous. Less than two weeks after New Delhi’s dilution of Article 370 in August 2019, China called for a meeting on the issue at the UN Security Council (UNSC) — this was the first time since 1965 that the UN body had convened exclusively to discuss the Kashmir dispute.

Worse, India’s abstention also solidifies the impression that it has something to hide from the international community about its own record in Kashmir. This is quite the contrast to the triumphalist narratives at home following the 2019 decision on Article 370.

Three, the Ministry of External Affairs’ (MEA) declaration that it was “its long held position that country specific resolutions are never helpful” is either disingenuous or the result of a lack of understanding of changed political and strategic realities with respect to China.

Disingenuous because after constantly reiterating that the bilateral relationship with China cannot be normal as long as the current standoff at the LAC continues, New Delhi appears to be trying to look conciliatory, and find grounds for convergence with China on an issue supposedly far away from the domestic public gaze. Yet, in typical style, the MEA spokesperson also made a point — at a media briefing in New Delhi and, therefore, targeted largely at the domestic audience — by explicitly stating that the “human rights of the people of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region should be respected and guaranteed”. Disingenuousness, also therefore, as far as China is concerned.

There are also contradictions in the Indian declaration. The first is a direct one — for India did vote in favour of a draft resolution on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, but against a similar one on Ethiopia the next day. Similarly, if India’s principle at play here is that country-specific resolutions are usually motivated by political considerations and not a genuine desire to help the country in question to improve the situation, then India might be accused of the same sin in its repeated attempts to sanction individual terrorists at the UNSC. While in letter, the objective may be to sanction particular individuals, in spirit, the intention is clearly also to draw attention to Pakistani responsibility for fostering terrorism in India.

The other part of the MEA’s spokesperson’s statement was that “India favours a dialogue to deal with such issues”. However, if India seriously thinks that by abstaining on Xinjiang, this is even a possibility with respect to China, then it surely has not been learning much from its recent experiences with the latter including the painfully slow progress of the disengagement process at the LAC since the 2020 clashes.

It is no wonder then that world capitals will be left scratching their heads at India’s decision. If even after the blatant Chinese attack on Indian territorial integrity and sovereignty in 2020, New Delhi is unable to take advantage of opportunities to highlight China’s bad behaviour, or at least to embarrass it, then third parties can be forgiven for wondering what India’s fuss about the LAC is all about.

The lack of a clear, consistent policy on China is not just a drag on India’s ability to shape international narratives on that country but provides wings to China’s ability to promote its own narratives of what happened, and is happening at the LAC. To return to the theme in the spy novel, one could argue that great powers or nations aspiring to great power status do not have the luxury of using morality as a method or tool to devise policy, and that it is in the achieving of their interests that morality lies. If so, it is not clear what national interests India has achieved by abstaining at the UNHRC vote on Xinjiang; it certainly is difficult to know from India’s latest action what its aims are.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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