The peace motif

Print edition : December 31, 2004

In the context of the United Nations' reform efforts, Japan makes strategic moves to strengthen its claims to permanent membership of the Security Council.

in Singapore

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi follows a Shinto priest after paying homage at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates Japan's war dead.-SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI/AP

POWER politics in the Asia-Pacific region is likely to intensify, as Japan and India stake their claims to permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council in the context of the report by the U.N. High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. The report was presented to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on December 2.

While the final position of each of the existing five permanent members with the veto right - the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China - will matter the most in the end, China's support is of utmost concern to both Tokyo and New Delhi, all major players from the Asian region. Beijing has lost no time in expressing itself in favour of a "democratic consensus" among the U.N. members on all issues of the organisation's reforms so that it could then confidently face the challenges of the 21st century.

Given this general but emphatic position of China, both Japan and India will seek, behind the scenes, to gain its backing for their independent claims. While the positions of the United States and Russia are important, in the Asia-Pacific context, Tokyo's case is of far more interest to Washington, Moscow and Beijing, in view of the manner in which the U.N. Security Council was built nearly 60 years ago, on the ashes of the Second World War. In today's international situation, neither imperial Japan's defeat in the Second World War nor the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, is an issue on the table of the reformers of the U.N. The sub-text of a subtle Japan-China political ping-pong on Tokyo's credentials has not yet been fully played out.

Two days before the High Level Panel formally submitted its report, Hatsuhisa Takashima, the Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, spelt out Tokyo's credentials in response to a question from the media. He asserted: "Japan, as a peace-loving non-nuclear nation, can have a special role to play in order to promote peace and stability in the world". This statement is portrayed as the prime aspect of the "legitimacy" of Japan's bid for permanent membership of the Security Council.

All the permanent members are nuclear powers and the legitimacy of their atomic weapons is also acknowledged under the multilateral Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). More specifically, in the Asia Pacific region, both China and India possess nuclear weapons, while Japan does not. India is not a signatory to the NPT.

The superiority of Japan's peace credentials over those of both India and China is obviously the strategic message of this argument, although Japan and India have agreed to campaign for each other's candidature for permanent membership. Relevant to this presentation by Japan is the fact that both China and India have independently enunciated the doctrine of "no first-use" of nuclear weapons. In Japan's reckoning, this aspect does not obviously mitigate the status of either China or India as a nuclear weapons State.

The `peace' motif of post-imperial Japan is matched, in its perception, by its stature as "the second largest economy in the world". Takashima said: "Japan would be able to play a larger role in promoting prosperity and the eradication of poverty from the face of the earth". Moreover, a permanent seat would mean that "Japanese views can be reflected in the decision-making process of the U.N.", he said.

If these two factors turn the spotlight on Japan's self-perception as an international player, its sense of enlightened self-interest is reflected in the third factor.

Takashima said Japan was "the second largest contributor to the U.N.'s regular budget and other financial arrangements"; the contention being that "Japan should have more of a say on every decision being taken at the U.N."

Japan has also argued that it is promoting not only its candidature for permanent membership but also for "the reform of structural and various other aspects of the U.N. as a whole, including Economic and Social Council reforms".

NOW, while overall reforms remain a goal of the U.N., in the context of its security functions, the High Level Panel has recommended that "under any reform proposal, there should be no expansion of the veto". In unfolding two alternative models of Security Council reform, the panel said: "as a whole, the institution of the veto has an anachronistic character that is unsuitable for [the U.N.] institution in an increasingly democratic age". However, the panel also saw "no practical way of changing the existing members' veto powers".

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan receives the report of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change from Anand Panyarachun (right), chairperson, and Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, its member, on December 2 at the U.N. headquarters in New York.-STAN HONDA/AFP

The origin of the veto itself is often explained in different ways, either as a privilege that would help underwrite the commitment of the big powers to collective security, or as a matter of bargain for a certain level of equilibrium among themselves.

Depicting the Security Council, which now consists of five permanent members and ten elected and non-permanent members as "fifteen men on a powder keg", writer Andrew Boyd said "the foundation on which the U.N. was built - by the great powers - was the great-power veto". Kishore Mahbubani, who has represented Singapore at the U.N. Security Council, believes that "the absence of a widely shared understanding of the responsibilities of both permanent and non-permanent members of the Council has developed into a serious weakness for the organisation".

While the larger international community is aware of the absence of a level-playing field in the Security Council, the High Level Panel has found itself faced with the challenge of `democratising' the Council. At another level, each of the permanent-member-aspirants is keen to be given veto powers with the same or comparable privileges.

IF Japan has not so far made an explicit pitch for permanent membership with the veto privilege, the reason has much to do with the fact that the debate on Security Council reforms is just beginning. China, whose support is essential for Japan, has said: "With many differences in existence, the enlargement of the Security Council bears on the interests of all parties concerned." Zhang Qiyue, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in Beijing on December 2: "China has all along supported the U.N. reform and a broader representation at the Security Council, in particular the representation of developing countries." This statement is obviously not welcome to Japan, which has now begun to regard China as a rapidly growing economy that could well graduate from the status of a developing country. While pledging to continue the Official Development Assistance (ODA) to China, Japan has hinted at the possibility of treating Beijing as a candidate that could emerge out of the ODA bracket.

While the ODA debate is relevant to the Japan-China diplomacy over Tokyo's Security Council-related ambitions, history, too, still plays a significant part in their overall engagement. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is still seen by China and several other East Asian countries as a grim reminder of Japan's imperial-era militancy and of its [the shrine's] appeal to sections of the Japanese people. Koizumi disputes this view, but this aspect, and the overall question of sustainable mutual trust have impinged on his recent and separate meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

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