Japan will call for a special ministerial meeting to be held at the United Nations in New York in 2003 to seek a broad consensus on reform of the U.N.’s powerful Security Council, including possibly increasing its membership, government sources said Saturday.

The sources said Japan has already informally sounded out the United States and some developing countries, primarily in Africa, about the proposal.

Although the new Republican administration of President George W. Bush, who took office on Jan. 20, has not yet given a clear response to the Japanese proposal, some developing countries have expressed their basic support, the sources said.

The sources said that if Japan can get the endorsement of more than 180 U.N. member nations through informal contacts, it will formally propose the convening of a special ministerial meeting on reforms of the Security Council during an annual U.N. General Assembly session that opens in September.

Japan, the world’s second largest contributor after the U.S. to the world body’s budget, has made clear that it would like a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, which currently has five permanent members and 10 rotating members.

Reform of the Security Council has been discussed since 1993 by a special task force set up under the U.N. General Assembly. No significant progress has been made so far, however, because of sharp differences over thorny questions such as the size of the future council and whether new permanent members should be granted veto powers.

The Japanese proposal for the convening of a special ministerial meeting in 2003 — the 10th anniversary of the U.N. task force beginning debate on reform of the council — apparently reflects grow

ing concern that Tokyo’s chances of gaining a much-coveted permanent seat might recede if the discussions drag on even longer without a significant breakthrough.

Japan insists that the number of both permanent and rotating members of the Security Council should be increased as part of any reforms. Japan and Germany are the most promising industrialized nations for permanent membership, but Italy has been reluctant about reforming the council because it does not want to see Germany become a permanent member.

At present, there are five permanent council members with veto powers: the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France. The 10 remaining members are not permanent. If Germany obtains a permanent seat, it would leave Italy as the only major European industrialized country not on the council.

The former U.S. administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton announced in April last year that it was willing to discuss increasing the council’s membership from the current 15 to a little more than 21, a number that Washington had previously set as a ceiling on future seats.

The sudden change in U.S. policy toward reform of the Security Council raised hopes of a breakthrough in the stalled discussions, although the U.S. is still opposed to expanding the council membership to 24 — or even more — as Japan and many other countries have proposed.

The new U.S. administration of President Bush is widely believed to hold the key to the future of debate on reforms of the council.

But the Bush administration, which has been preoccupied by reducing taxes at home and strained ties with Russia and China over a missile defense system and other issues since his inauguration three months ago, has not yet formulated its own policy toward the U.N.

Japanese government officials firmly believe that Washington’s continued staunch support will be essential to Tokyo gaining a permanent seat on the council.

Consequently, and even though the recent Japan-U.S. summit at the White House focused on rescuing the ailing Japanese economy and repairing damaged ties in the wake of a collision off Hawaii between an American submarine and a Japanese fisheries training vessel, outgoing Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori did not forget to raise U.N. reform with Bush.

A joint statement issued by the two leaders after their March 19 meeting stated, “The two leaders expressed their commitment to promoting U.N. Security Council reform with the goal of strengthening its effectiveness.” “In this context, they agreed to work together to obtain for Japan a permanent seat on the Security Council.”

The joint statement may suggest that Japan got all that it wanted from the Bush administration at the meeting, but the government sources said the U.S. side rebuffed a Japanese proposal to refer to the need to increase the council membership to 24 in the statement.

Just six days before the Mori-Bush meeting, Yukio Sato, the Japanese ambassador to the U.N., proposed that the U.N. restrict the use of the permanent Security Council members’ veto powers, an apparent bid to muster broader support for Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the council.

While noting that an “overwhelming majority” of U.N. members wish to restrict veto powers, Sato specifically suggested setting up guidelines to restrict their use.

“It is indisputable that veto powers should be exercised with utmost restraint. The use of the veto by any state to further its parochial national interests is not acceptable,” Sato told the U.N. task force on council reform.

At the same time, however, Sato made it clear that Japan would not forgo the veto right that is currently accorded the five permanent council members if it receives a permanent seat. “Any discrimination in status between the new and existing permanent members must be avoided,” he said.

Although Japan succeeded in eliciting a firm assurance from the Bush administration that it will continue to receive strong U.S. support for its permanent membership bid, some new dark clouds are already beginning to appear.

Junichiro Koizumi, a former health and welfare minister running in the election for president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is known to be less than enthusiastic about pursuing a permanent council seat for Japan.

If Koizumi wins the race for the LDP presidency — which will automatically make him prime minister because the LDP-led coalition holds a majority in the more powerful Lower House — the government might be forced to review its strategy for winning a permanent Security Council seat.

Another possible impediment to the Japanese bid is the deteriorating relationship between Japan and South Korea due to a fierce dispute over a textbook for Japanese junior high schools drawn up by nationalist historians.

The South Korean ambassador to the U.N. will chair the next U.N. General Assembly session, which opens in September, and will concurrently serve as chairman of a special task force on reform of the Security Council.

Amid the simmering textbook row, some South Korean lawmakers are calling for the government of President Kim Dae Jung to object to Japan being granted a permanent Security Council seat.

Seoul has reacted angrily to the Japanese education authorities’ formal approval earlier this month of the controversial textbook.

South Korea, along with China, criticized the book, claiming that it justifies Japanese aggression against its Asian neighbors. The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 until 1945, when Japan was defeated in World War II.

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