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Japan's push for the UNSC

Julian Ryall, TokyoJanuary 27, 2016

Tokyo believes 70 years of pacifism and a commitment to international law and order give it a right to a permanent seat at the UN's top table. But regional rival China is unlikely to allow that to happen.

New York UN-Sicherheitsrat Sitzung
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Franklin II

Japan began its latest two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in January, but is intent on using the opportunity to advance its proposals for reforms of the UN's top decision-making body - including a permanent seat for a representative of Tokyo.

This week, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida inaugurated the "Strategic Headquarters regarding UNSC" at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo in a bid to underline Japan's credentials for a permanent seat on the body.

"Japan needs to make a high-level contribution to the Security Council to show that it is suitable as a permanent member," Kishida said. Of immediate concern, he stressed, is North Korea, which earlier this month carried out a fourth underground nuclear test and is apparently pushing ahead with efforts to develop nuclear-capable long-range missiles.

Kishida said that North Korea's belligerence proves that discussions in the UNSC "directly relate to Japan's national interests." He added that Tokyo intends to use its voice in the council to call for tougher new sanctions on Pyongyang.

Peaceful and pacifist

"A permanent seat on the council would help shape Japan's status as a totally peaceful and pacifist nation since the end of World War II," said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor in the department of politics and international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University.

USA New York G4 Gipfel Angela Merkel mit Rousseff, Modi und Abe
Japan, Germany, India and Brazil have expressed dissatisfaction with the present composition of the UNSCImage: Agencia Brasil

"A second reason why Japan believes it should hold this position is that Tokyo believes in the importance of international law and upholds those laws, while other states - such as China and North Korea - do not always do the same," he told DW.

There is a lingering sense of injustice in Japan that regional rival China has a full seat on the Security Council while Japan, which abides by the accepted conventions, does not, he added.

Equally, while China's economy may be larger than that of Japan, that is a relatively new development and there are differences in the qualitatives and quantitatives of the two economies.

Financial contribution

Go Ito, a professor of political science at Tokyo's Meiji University, says there is also a feeling that Japan pays a high proportion of the UN's bills but still lacks a full voice. "Since the 1960s, Japan has paid a large amount towards the UN and has long annually contributed the second-largest figure to the organization after the United States, which, of course, has a permanent seat," he pointed out.

"Similarly, Germany - the third-largest contributor - also has no permanent seat on the Security Council," he said. "By contrast, Britain and France - which emerged victorious from World War II – cover only a relatively small portion of the UN's budget."

Japan's ambition to secure a permanent UNSC seat dates back three decades or more, Ito said, but was more of a subtle movement until Junichiro Koizumi became prime minister in April 2001.

The expert says he believes Koizumi sensed that Japan was stuck in a situation of "taxation with no representation" when it came to the UN and that the make-up of the Security Council did not reflect the realities of the world more than 50 years after the organization was first set up.

That attitude is apparently shared by the present Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe, who would also very much like a major foreign policy victory on his record before he steps down.

Japan is one of four countries - the others being Germany, India and Brazil - that have expressed dissatisfaction with the present composition of the UNSC and are pushing for changes. And while many in the UN have expressed support for revisions, including some of the present five permanent members, not all governments are in agreement.

Japan at arms' length

China, for example, can be expected to put up a strong fight to keep Japan at arm's length. "Abe is working hard to build relations with other states in Asia, such as South Korea and Vietnam, and to win their support for Japan's bid for a permanent seat," Professor Ito said.

"The sense is that if the other countries in the region are united behind Japan, then it will be difficult for China to use its veto.

"I think Abe's approach is to make it impossible for China to continue its resistance to Japan's bid."

China und Japan Flaggen Archiv 2012
Experts say China is likely to use its veto against any attempt to grant Japan a permanent seat on a revised and enlarged councilImage: STR/AFP/Getty Images

But Nagy, of the International Christian University, is less optimistic about China's flexibility on the matter. "China has absolutely no interest in having either Japan or India on the Security Council," he said. "Beijing still considers Japan to be an illegitimate state that has not reconciled with its past and therefore should not be permitted to have a permanent seat.

"Its position as the only Asian state with a permanent seat elevates China's standing and Beijing is happy to manipulate that situation and give itself even more of an ability to protect its own interests."

Critically, China holds a veto, he pointed out, and is likely to use it should Japan's name be put forward for a permanent seat on a revised and enlarged council.