Op-Ed

Japan’s not ready for permanent UNSC seat

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Earlier this month, at the United Nations, Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono pressed Japan’s case for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat. He argued that Japan’s hefty financial contributions to the U.N., its other foreign assistance activities and its strong support for global nonproliferation and arms control make it a top global playerƒnot only in economics and diplomacy, but in the security sphere as well.

As a supporter of a stronger, more confident, more assertive Japan, I welcome the attitude that led Kono to make his proposal. But it seems premature, nonetheless. The Security Council is designed to promote and protect international security. Japan is not yet a top-tier contributor to such efforts. It should have to do more before gaining the special status of a permanent Security Council member.

To be sure, Japan already makes important contributions to international peace and stability. Its contributions to the U.S.-Japan alliance, mostly in terms of base access and host-nation support, are generous and significant. Tokyo’s ban on the export of weaponry makes Japan a positive force in nonproliferation efforts, and its principled stand against weapons of mass destruction makes it a strong supporter of arms control as well. Japanese defense forces have impressive capability.

Finally, with its economic power, Japan not only funds the U.N. and various human-development activities. It also uses aid programsƒand sometimes even the threat of sanctionsƒto discourage other countries from provocative actions. It has used this leverage effectively with countries such as North Korea and China in recent years. But none of that is enough.

Japan does not yet show any real willingness to accept the human risks of ensuring international security by sending its own troops abroad on dangerous missions. For that reason, it does not yet have the moral authority to be a permanent member of the Security Council. Nor does its political system have enough experience in making hard decisions about when and how to use military power to good effect.

In the early 1990s, Japan did participate militarily in important missions in the Persian Gulf and Cambodia. But that was not enough, and Tokyo has done little more since then. The revised Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation Guidelines are useful and important. But they generally just make Japan better at doing what it already does wellƒproviding support for the United States far from the front lines.

Japan essentially sat out the East Timor operation last year. It has stood on the sidelines as the world scrambles for additional peacekeeping capacity to handle difficult U.N. missions in places such as Sierra Leone. Because there are not enough peacekeepers for such conflicts, too many innocent people in places like Sierra Leone, Congo and Angola continue to die needless deaths. Countries like Japan can and should do more to change that tragic fact.

Japan compares poorly with the U.S., Britain and France in its willingness to risk its national prestige and its soldiers’ lives in upholding peace abroad. It certainly does more for international peace and stability than Russia or China. But those countries are not permanent members of the Security Council due to their positive effects on the international community. Rather, they have permanent seats because of their power, the need for geographic and cultural balance on the Security Council, and various accidents of history.

Future permanent members of the Security Council need to earn their ticket aboard. They need not mimic the U.S. or the British or the French model, of course. But to qualify as a permanent member, a country should have several attributes. It should be:

  • large and powerful;
  • committed to democracy and human rights;
  • responsible in how it develops and uses military power;
  • a positive force for arms control and nonproliferation; and
  • willing to contribute militarily to deter or stop violent conflict and save lives.
  • Japan meets the first four requirements but not the last. Germany is similar to Japan, and in fact it has begun to meet even the fifth criterion, given its recent participation in NATO military operations in the Balkans. India meets the last criterion, and most of the others as well, but its recent nuclear tests make it a poor near-term candidate because those tests violated the third reasonable prerequisite to permanent membership. Brazil is an impressive South American power. Nigeria may be headed toward becoming a natural candidate from Africa, especially in light of its recent progress toward democracy and its recent military efforts to quell conflict in West Africa, though it has a way to go too. But on what grounds should Japan get a permanent seat before these other countries?

    The problem is twofold. First, the world community needs a fair way of determining what small group of countries should gain additional permanent U.N. Security Council seats in the years ahead. It cannot easily admit Japan or any other single country without solving the broader question first, lest it be accused of favoritism or discrimination.

    Second, Japan needs to broaden its security portfolio. Most specifically, it needs to lay the legal and military groundwork for playing a greater role in multilateral security missions abroad. Its efforts need not be of such a scale as to worry its neighbors (though Beijing will probably object in any case). But they should be significantƒand sincere. They should also gradually increase over time. With this sort of road map, Japan may deserve a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council by 2010 or so. But in the eyes of this particular friend and admirer of Japan, it is not there yet.