Japan’s quest for UN Security Council reform going nowhere

Author: Toshitaka Takeuchi, Osaka University

January 2016 marked the beginning of Japan’s most recent two-year term as an elected, non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This is Japan’s 11th term, the most of any nation in the world. Japan’s dream is to become a permanent member of the UNSC. But can this dream really come true?

Seiji Kihara, Japan's senior vice foreign minister with representatives of the nine other nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council (Photo: AAP)

The UNSC has undergone reforms only once, in 1965, when it expanded the number of non-permanent seats from 11 to 15. This was because the number of UN member states had increased from the original 51 to 118. The membership now stands at 193, a significant increase again since 1965. This has sparked calls for further reforms of the UNSC.

UNSC reform was hotly debated in 2005, when there were several major proposals, including a proposal to expand the permanent membership to include the G4 countries, Japan, Germany, India and Brazil. But these proposals failed to get off the ground. None were even put to a vote. UNSC reform is arguably no longer an active agenda at the UN.

Japan is still a strong proponent of UNSC reforms and has been pushing for ‘intergovernmental negotiations on Security Council reform’ in the General Assembly. But nothing significant has been achieved and there are no prospects for reform in sight.

Why does Japan want an enlarged UNSC? The main reason is, of course, because Japan would have a much better chance to sit on it, if not obtain a permanent seat.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains that many member states advocate very strongly for a ‘more legitimate, representative, effective and efficient Council, including an increase in both the permanent and non-permanent seats’. Japan believes it is a suitable candidate for a permanent position on the UNSC because it is the second largest contributor to the UN budget after the United States. And Japan has also been actively contributing to international peace and security through UN peacekeeping operations and peacebuilding missions.

So, how do these arguments stack up?

While many agree that the UNSC should be expanded because of increased membership, there is significant disagreement about the details. What, for example, should be the basis for determining the legitimacy and representativeness of the UNSC? Which regions should be granted more seats and how many?

There may also be downsides to making the UNSC more representative. The UNSC may not be able to make prompt and effective decisions if it is enlarged. If the UNSC accurately represents global diversity that would mean that there would be more diverse and conflicting opinions in the UNSC, making it more difficult and time-consuming for it to come to an agreement. This would be counterproductive.

As for Japan’s financial contributions, the cry of ‘no taxation without representation’ has some resonance. But Japan’s share of the budget contributions has been declining. Japan’s share for the 2016–2017 cycle is now 9.68 per cent, down from a high of 20.57 per cent in 2000 — which was nearly equal to the United States’ 22 per cent share.

What about Japan’s contributions to peace and security? Despite Japan’s efforts to send its Self-Defense Forces personnel on UN peacekeeping missions since the early 1990s, Japan’s contributions are small in number and scale. This may increase with the newly enacted security bills of September 2015, which enabled Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defence within certain limitations.

Another stumbling block is the procedure required to reform the UNSC. It requires a two-third majority in the General Assembly including the support of all five permanent members on the UNSC. This amounts to 129 votes out of the current 193 member states, meaning the G4 group would most likely need the support of the African Union — a tough task indeed. The last time the G4 tried to gain support from the African Union, in 2005, it failed miserably. Now, 10 years later, the general situation is not much changed.

The other obstacle to overcome is China, which — as a permanent member of the UNSC, has the power to veto any reform push. China is adamantly opposed to Japan having a permanent seat. Japan’s strategy is to garner an overwhelming majority in the General Assembly so that China would be reluctant to use its veto power. But China may be determined to veto any reform push that would enable Japan to gain a permanent seat on the UNSC no matter how much support Japan has in the General Assembly given the tense relations between the two countries.

Despite Japan’s ongoing efforts, the debate over UNSC reform does not seems to be going anywhere. And, even if most countries found Japan’s case for a permanent seat convincing, Japan still needs China’s acquiescence. The best that Japan can realistically hope for is a semi-permanent seat with a four to eight year term and the chance of reelection.

Toshitaka Takeuchi is a Professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy, Osaka University and a Visiting Professor at the International Studies Department,

De La Salle University, Philippines.