India and China are expected to play key roles in choosing the next president of the UN Human Rights Council, with New Delhi faced with the tough challenge of choosing between rival candidates from two countries with which it has close ties.

The current president, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, completed her year-long term on December 31 and the post was set to go to Nazhat Shameem Khan, Fiji’s top diplomat in Geneva and a noted human rights activist.

However, China and Russia opposed her candidature at the last minute and backed a Bahraini candidate, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity. The Human Rights Council is currently working without a chief for the first time in its 15-year history.

With a key meeting of the council to be chaired by the president scheduled for January 18, hectic efforts are underway to find a solution to the impasse. Both India and China are seen as key players in the Asia-Pacific group, which is slated to hold the presidency of the UN’s human rights body this year.

India has close ties with both Fiji, where more than a third of the population is of Indian-origin, and Bahrain, a key energy partner and home to some 350,000 Indian expatriates. This factor, the people cited above, has complicated the process of choosing a candidate for New Delhi.

There are concerns in some quarters as Bahrain’s candidate is being backed by China and also apprehensions that some members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) could use a possible Bahraini presidency to raise issues that are of concern to India, the people said.

On December 16, the 47-member Human Rights Council elected Keva Lorraine Bain of the Bahamas, Ali Ibn Abi Talib Abdelrahman Mahmoud of Sudan and Monique TG van Daalen of the Netherlands to three of four posts of vice presidents for a one-year term beginning on January 1. They represent the Latin American and Caribbean states, African states and Western European and other states respectively in the five-member bureau or the council’s top decision-making body.

However, the council was unable to choose a president because of opposition to the Fijian candidate, primarily from China, which was concerned about Khan’s past reputation as a human rights advocate, the people said.

Some reports have suggested China is also keen on having a friendly candidate in the council’s top post at a time when the US is expected to rejoin the body under president-elect Joe Biden. President Donald Trump had pulled the US out of the council in 2018.

The Asia-Pacific group had sought additional time in December for consultations on filling the position of president and a vote may be needed to break the impasse. In such circumstances, both India and China are expected to play key roles, the people said.