Asia Program

Events

Japan's Quest for a Permanent UN Security Council Seat

October 21, 1999 // 12:00am

By Alexei Kral

In the aftermath of the Kosovo crisis and the NATO bombing of Serbia, anxious policymakers in Tokyo are searching for ways to make Japan's views on international affairs better heard. Many turned their attention to the UN, which Japan has made a central element of its foreign policy ever since becoming a UN member in 1956. Acting through the UN provides a multilateral alternative to the U.S.-Japan alliance, which has dominated Japanese foreign policy since 1945. In recent years, Japan has increased its role in UN projects. However, Japan's Foreign Ministry has been discouraged by domestic and international impediments as it strives to expand Japan's UN involvement to include a permanent Security Council seat. Whether Japan receives a permanent seat or not, its efforts and progress will affect its relations with its Asian neighbors, the United States, and all UN members. Reinhard Drifte, Chair of Japanese Studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and author of Japan's Quest for a Permanent Security Council Seat: A Matter of Pride or Justice? (1999), examined the intricacies and ramifications of Japan's bid at an Asia Program roundtable discussion on October 21, 1999.

Japan's Foreign Ministry leads the quest for a permanent Security Council seat, Drifte told a group of diplomats and Japan specialists. After World War II, Japanese diplomats saw the UN as a means for Japan to reenter the international community. Today, Japanese diplomats see a permanent seat as a way to reestablish Japan's status as a leader in the international community, he observed. In the early 1990's, Foreign Ministry officials were traumatized by the experience of the Gulf War because Japan was widely criticized for checkbook diplomacy and its failure to offer personnel for the international coalition organized against Iraq. Drifte noted Foreign Ministry officials believe a permanent seat would fit Japan's economic superpower status, gain recognition for Japan's international contributions, and help rehabilitate Japan from its World War II history.

Reviewing the arguments for Japan's permanent seat, Drifte suggested that regional representation supports Japan's case. "Asia with its huge population would not appear over represented with Japan and another Asian country sitting on the Council in addition to China," he commented. The second point in Japan's favor is the expansion of Japan's multilateral diplomacy, particularly through foreign aid projects. The strongest argument in Japan's favor is its financial contributions to the UN. Japanese proponents feel a permanent seat is their just entitlement because Japan contributes twenty percent of the UN's budget - making it the largest contributor at the moment. Only the United States is pledged to contribute more (at twenty-five percent of the budget), but Washington is presently withholding its contributions. Recently, a group of young Diet members proposed to cut Japan's voluntary contributions by ten percent until Japan gets a permanent seat. Drifte criticized this as "learning from the U.S. in the wrong way."

Still, Japanese political leadership for a permanent seat has been lacking. Drifte suggested that politicians may prefer to avoid the domestic debate and international obligations permanent membership could entail by increasing pressure for Japanese participation in UN peacekeeping operations (PKO). Increased peacekeeping involvement could force debate on Japan's pacifist constitution and challenge the economic focus of Japan's foreign policy. Drifte observed the PKO issue became a "serious burden for the bid" because "Japan has failed - if it is possible at all - to offer something radically innovative and alternative which could substitute the willingness to sacrifice the blood of its own people."

The greatest external challenge to Japan's bid is convincing a two-thirds majority of the member states that they would benefit from the expansion of permanent Security Council members, Drifte argued. To this end, Japan has been using foreign aid to cultivate Third World support for its bid, therein "showing how Japan translates economic power into political power." Japan has also "expanded the geographical and thematic scope of its multilateral diplomacy." Indeed, Japan has increased assistance to African nations when many Western countries seem to have forgotten that continent, Drifte noted.

Some UN members have opposed Japan's bid, saying it would simply give the United States a second veto. Drifte noted that Tokyo's failure to express how it would use the seat has reinforced opposition. He cited the ominous comment of a permanent member state's representative who said, "I don't have an opinion on Security Council reform, I have a veto."

Japan's neighbors also present obstacles. North Korea has explicitly opposed Japan's bid, and China and South Korea are not supportive. Drifte noted China might forego its veto if two-thirds of the UN members voted with Japan.

In relations with the United States, Japan's quest for a permanent seat has created tension. The Japanese have been frustrated by what they feel is lip service to Japan's bid followed by "hypocritical, inconsistent, and counterproductive" moves by the U.S. government, which is reluctant to support Security Council reform.

Drifte stated the implications of a permanent seat for Japan could be problematic because the Japanese preference for careful deliberation and consensus could prevent the Security Council from moving quickly in crises like Kosovo or East Timor. As a permanent Security Council member, Japan might delay action in crises, thereby leading to situations in which armed intervention would be the only remaining option.

Despite the obstacles and questions surrounding Japan's quest, Drifte concluded, "the long history of Japan's bid and its strong bureaucratic anchoring" makes it "very likely" that a permanent Security Council seat will remain a priority for Japan.

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