EDITOR’S NOTE: As the United Nations elects a new secretary general, Shashi Tharoor takes the lid off a controversial election for the UN’s top job a decade ago – when he lost to Ban Ki-moon. Tharoor, who was the UN undersecretary general for communications and public information at the time, finished second to Ban, then South Korea’s foreign minister. A charismatic career diplomat and prolific writer, Tharoor’s defeat put an end to Indians’ dream of their first UN secretary general. In India, the result was quickly dubbed China’s handiwork, yet more proof of China’s machinations to hold down India. That perception has persisted to this day. Tharoor, who returned to India after the UN election, was elected a member of parliament and became a minister. He reveals in this special piece for This Week in Asia how China promised not to oppose him, and kept its word. One veto-wielding permanent Security Council member finally did sabotage Tharoor, but it wasn’t China.

THE NEWS THAT the United Nations Security Council has elected its ninth secretary general, the former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres, has put an end to the mounting anxiety around the world about the risks of a protracted stand-off. The council’s first four ballots had produced something of a stalemate, with all the dozen candidates in the fray attracting a number of negative votes, and it had been feared that the two negative votes Guterres carried in the fourth ballot were those of permanent members opposed to his election. On the fifth ballot, however, this turned out not to be the case, and a general sigh of relief could be heard around Turtle Bay as consensus was announced on his name.

United Nations appoints Guterres as new secretary general

As the candidate who came second last time, 10 years ago, when Ban Ki-moon was elected in similar circumstances, I followed the votes with interest. At the same time I read a number of references to the 2006 race that were, frankly, inaccurate.

While some things have been published, particularly in India, that I have preferred not to respond to out of respect for the conventions of confidentiality, one point is worth clarifying, particularly for readers in East Asia. It is simply untrue that my run for the secretary generalship, as India’s official candidate, was scuttled by China.

This was an obvious concern when the Indian government first mulled my candidacy. I mentioned it myself in my first conversation on the subject with then prime minister Manmohan Singh. Beijing and New Delhi had not seen eye to eye for years over many issues, and there was an increasing perception that Washington, as well as some Asean capitals, were seeing newly resurgent India as a plausible counterweight to the overweening (and growing) international prominence of China. Though India firmly disavowed any intention of playing such a role, there was always a possibility that China would see an Indian secretary general nominee as a tool in a broader strategy to cut China down to size on the world stage.

More Tharoor: What the Rio Olympics medal tally says about China-India comparisons

The essential thing, therefore, was to find out. I was an Indian but had never served as a government official, spending the preceding 28 years as an international civil servant. Would the Chinese government see me principally as the UN official many of them knew, and whose professional performance they had witnessed at close quarters at UN Headquarters, or as the thin Indian edge of an anti-Chinese wedge?

The prime minister said that the government would make its own inquiries, but that I should do so as well, in the hope that a personal approach would elicit a franker response than a diplomatic query.

Accordingly, I spoke to the Permanent Representative of China, the energetic ambassador Wang Guangya, to say that I would like to call on his foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing. “You are always welcome,” the diplomat replied, to which I responded: “But I want to convey through you why I want to see him. India is considering nominating me to contest for the post of secretary general – and this is what I wish to discuss with him. If he does not wish to receive me on this subject, I will get the message and no embarrassment need be caused on either side.”

“Let me check with Beijing and get back to you,” Wang replied.

It took him a few days but he did indeed call back. “Foreign Minister Li will be every pleased to receive you,” he said.

“Let me make this clear,” I said. “I am coming to discuss my possible candidacy for secretary general. Since it is a personal issue, I am not coming on an official mission for the UN. And since I do not work for the Indian government, I am not coming as an Indian emissary either. This is a purely personal visit, for which I am taking annual leave and travelling on my own.”

“In that case,” Wang replied, “we will send a car for you to the airport.”

They did, and I was promptly whisked off to see Foreign Minister Li, an experienced and jovial diplomat whom I had known when he served as China’s permanent representative to the UN in New York from 1993 to 1995, at the height of the Yugoslav crisis.

The understanding was that I could expect 20 minutes with him and an hour with senior officials of the foreign ministry, followed by a lunch.

The meeting duly began with all formality. “China strongly wishes to see an Asian secretary general elected this time,” the foreign minister noted after politely expressing China’s appreciation for my record at the UN, “but do you think there may be a risk that too many candidates could undermine each other?”

More Tharoor: The dangers of the e-mail tsunami

This could have been a signal that China felt there were enough contenders in the fray already – or that an Indian would be an unwelcome addition to the list. But Li went out of his way to dispel such an interpretation of his remarks. He mentioned China’s growing closeness to India and expressed satisfaction that New Delhi was considering seeking such a position at the UN. He explored my thoughts on various world issues. Our conversation was wide-ranging, substantive and amicable; the 20 minutes assigned stretched on to an hour and a half. At one point, Li switched to French, and was pleasantly surprised at the fluency of my response.

After an amicable exchange in that language, he laughed: “Now all you need to do is learn Chinese!” He offered, with a smile, to be my teacher, and proceeded to scribble my name in Chinese characters on a napkin.

As the meeting drew to a close, his tone turned grave. He spoke slowly and clearly in English: “Please convey to your government that China will not stand in your way.”

China will not stand in your way. There was only one possible interpretation of these words: China would not use its veto to block me.

If China had already made its mind up in favour of another candidate, there was no sign of it. It was obvious to me that my nationality would not render me their preferred choice in the post, but this was a clear message that they would not explicitly oppose me either. It was now up to me to fare better than the other contenders.

The foreign minister was as good as his word. When the first “straw poll” took place at the Security Council in July, Ban led with 12 votes and I was second with 10. One of my 10 votes was China’s.

Council members could vote positively, negatively or with no opinion on all the candidates and, as we subsequently learned, China had voted positively for all the Asian candidates, including me.

We know the rest of the story from American sources, notably from Surrender Is Not An Option, the no-holds-barred memoir published by the then US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who disloyally revealed that his instructions from then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice were: “We don’t want a strong secretary general”. Bolton’s book confirmed that Wang had voted for all the Asian candidates on the first ballot; China then abstained on my candidacy on subsequent ballots but, as it promised, it never used its veto against me. That was done by the United States, which, Bolton reveals, backed Ban to the hilt and lobbied on his behalf with other Security Council members.

When I had dinner with former president George W. Bush on his visit to Mumbai in early 2011, he grinned broadly and said: “Oh, I left that all to Condi!”

For the secretary of state and her department, three considerations appear to have prevailed. First, the bilateral relationship with South Korea. At a time when various irritants had cropped up between Washington and then president Roh Moo-hyun, the last thing Rice needed was to antagonise the South Koreans on an issue that clearly mattered a great deal to them, and did not matter much to the US.

Second, Washington never got the impression that the UN secretary generalship was as much a priority for India as it clearly was for the South Koreans. If Indian diplomats ever mentioned it, they claimed, they did so with the air of officials merely doing their duty. The political and governmental leadership, though sincere and loyal in their support, were understandably much more focused on the Indo-US nuclear deal that was taking shape at the same time.

The third factor that weighed heavily with the Americans was the collapse of their warm relationship with the incumbent secretary general, Kofi Annan. Annan had been an American favourite, strongly backed by the Clinton administration for election in 1996 and supported by Bush for re-election in 2001. But in 2003, he had said – after being badgered into a corner by a BBC interviewer – that the Iraq war was “illegal”.

This had set off a firestorm in neocon-run DC, and unleashed a savage backlash against Annan, with lurid media exposés of the “oil-for-food” scandal being used to tarnish his image.

As the question of his successor came up, one senior American told me, Washington was determined: “No more Kofis”.

By which was meant that the US would not want a secretary general who, like Annan, could appeal above the heads of governments to a global public and use the world media to advance his UN agenda. Those terms, alas, fitted one candidate to a T – or an ST.

Could Hillary Clinton and Kofi Annan sit on Nobel Peace Prize committee?

These three factors – the bilateral relationship with Korea, a perception of a lack of conviction on India’s part, and the Bush administration’s desire not to repeat the Annan experiment of a “strong” secretary general – combined to ensure the US veto that scuttled my candidacy.

It had nothing to do with India’s size, India’s Security Council aspirations or indeed any political skulduggery at home.

Least of all did it have anything to do with China. Even if Beijing, as Bolton’s memoir indicates, was quite happy with the outcome, China never did oppose me.

Current relations between India and China are complicated. On the positive side are a burgeoning US$70 billion in bilateral trade (skewed heavily in China’s favour), and promises of increased Chinese investment in India’s growing economy, amid a relaxation by the Modi government of restrictions on Chinese involvement in such sectors as ports, power and telecoms. On the negative side are the continuing lack of progress in resolving their six-decade border dispute and Chinese diplomatic actions in support of Pakistan. Global geopolitics continues to pit India and China against each other on some issues even as they cooperate on others.

It is in the interest of all Asians that the two regional giants should manage their complicated relationship constructively. But there is no reason at all to add to these complications a problem that never existed. Ten years ago, China did not stand in my way.