On Thursday, Japan was selected by the United Nations General Assembly to serve as a two-year non-permanent member of the Security Council.
It's Japan's 11th term on the council since it joined the UN in 1956; it ran unopposed for a single seat representing the 54-member Asia-Pacific group. (The council has 10 non-permanent seats, five of which are up for election this time around. The other four are now Ukraine, Egypt, Senegal, and Uruguay.)
But as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated in his remarks at the UN two weeks ago, Japan's ultimate goal is a reform of the Security Council — and (unsurprisingly) a permanent seat of its own.
Japan's global role since World War II reflects not only its well-known economic clout, but also major humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and peacekeeping efforts. After all, they have the third-largest economy in the world, behind the United States and China. But Japan clearly wants to see its influence evolve in other areas as well. This mission has only been accelerated by China's growth over the last generation, as Tokyo seeks to retain and expand a leadership role in the region and elsewhere in the face of a gigantic neighbor with whom it has all kinds of problems and historic animosities.
While maintaining its post–World War II tradition of peace, Japan has been making slow and careful adjustments in the area of national security. Following WWII, Japan's new constitution included mechanisms to guard against a repeat of its aggression in Asia during the first half of the 20th Century. Article 9, specifically, outlawed war as a means to settle disputes and prohibited the maintenance of armed forces with "war potential." The constitution remains unchanged, but as VICE News reported in September, the legal interpretation of Article 9 is evolving in a way that would permit more collective defense action and overseas operations with allies.
During his UN remarks on September 29, Abe stated that recent changes to Japan's national security laws would allow it "to contribute to peacekeeping operations in a broader manner going forward."
"Japan has a history of supporting nation-building in a variety of places," he added. "Now more than ever, Japan wishes to offer that wealth of experience, unstintingly."
The US has supported its ally's move toward more flexible military operations around the world, as Japan's military forces are highly capable and valuable in a variety of coalition-style operations and interoperability exercises. In a recent interview, Rear Admiral Charlie Williams, commander of the US Seventh Fleet's Task Force 73, noted Japan's participation in the US-led Pacific Partnership multilateral humanitarian assistance exercise. The 16-week-long exercise, which also included participation from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Canada, Fiji, Timor-Leste, and Singapore, conducted operations throughout the region, providing medical care and building projects.
"I think it's promising for the region as a whole to see Japan operating in places like the Philippines because they're a very natural player in the Western Pacific," Williams said. "They also had quite a team embark on the USNS Mercy — our hospital ship…. It's demonstrative of Japan's desire to certainly participate more in the region, and I think it's a very natural step."
Japan has also now become a permanent part of the annual naval exercise MALABAR, joining the US and India in what began as a bilateral event. MALABAR has ripple effects beyond its participants. When the large democracies in the Asia-Pacific get together for military exercises, China tends not to be a fan, suspecting that its neighbors are up to something more than just splashing about in the Pacific.
Although Japan's recent reforms allow for its armed forces (the Japan Self-Defense Forces, or JSDF) to operate in new ways, talk of "remilitarization" is overblown.
"Its military still has more self-imposed restrictions than any other major country, its defense budget is a fifth of China's, and its military posture is defensively oriented," said Brian Harding, director of East and Southeast Asia policy at the Center for American Progress. "For decades, the United States has been urging Japan to make its defense policy more flexible to enable deeper alliance integration. With threats from North Korea and a rapidly modernizing Chinese military next door, Prime Minister Abe decided the time is now."
In short, when Abe talks of instances in which Japan would use force, the constitution still blocks action in many, many cases. Such force is now permitted only for actions of "collective self-defense" and "defense of allies."
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But back to the UN and Japan's prospects for a permanent seat, which Japan feels it deserves for numerous reasons, including its economic power, its financial and personnel contributions to UN missions, and its commitment to arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation.
US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush previously backed a permanent seat for Japan, but (like all current permanent members) the US has misgivings about diluting its own influence on the Security Council. The council came about following World War II, with its five permanent members (US, China, France, Russia, and the UK) all representing the victorious Allies (and incidentally the first five states to test nuclear weapons). The inclusion of a country from the losing side of WWII would be a clear recognition of a new international era.
If change is inevitable, the US would most likely prefer the addition of a close ally. But it's hard to imagine a scenario in which China would warm to the addition of Japan.
Of course, Japan isn't the only country that covets a permanent seat. For the first time in 11 years, leaders from the so-called "G4" nations (Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) met on the sidelines of the General Assembly sessions. South Africa's President Jacob Zuma also used his General Assembly speaking time to advocate for Security Council reform.
"It is unacceptable and unjustifiable that more than one billion people in the African continent are still excluded as permanent members of the key decision-making structure of the United Nations," he said. "A continent [Europe] with a smaller population than Africa is represented by three countries on the UN Security Council."
As David Bosco advocates in Foreign Policy, the option of a new, semi-permanent seat may be the most realistic reform that Japan — or any other Security Council hopeful — can expect at this point.
"In contrast to the existing elected spots, which countries occupy for just two years," he wrote, "the new seats would have four- or five-year terms, and countries should be eligible for immediate reelection."
The inevitable irony here is the idea that Japan's recent efforts to better enable its military response could strengthen its case to join the world's preeminent peacemaking body. But then again, all of this is predicated on the idea that the words "Japanese military" don't mean what they did three-quarters of a century ago.