Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly later this month, will express Japan’s desire to become a permanent member of the Security Council. There is almost unanimous agreement that Japan should play a larger international role. This does not necessarily mean, however, that it should take a permanent seat on the council. Mr. Koizumi owes the Japanese people, as well as the international community, a convincing explanation of what Japan can and intends to do as a full-fledged member of the body.

The question touches the heart of Japan’s foreign and security policy, yet there is little evidence that this has been discussed thoroughly within the government and the ruling parties. Mr. Koizumi should first have told the Japanese public in plain language why he believes Japan should seek a permanent seat.

The need to restructure the Security Council is widely recognized, although it has played a key role in the prevention and settlement of conflicts around the globe. It is effectively run by its five permanent members: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. They hold veto power — a privilege not enjoyed by 10 nonpermanent members, which are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Decisions by the council require the approval of nine of the 15 members, but we know only too well, a veto by any of the five can block action.

It is still fresh in memory that French opposition to military intervention in Iraq stopped the Security Council from adopting a resolution authorizing the use of force. The U.S. and Britain — which had sought such a decision — were left with no alternative but to start war without an explicit mandate from the council.

The privileged status of the five — World War II victors that played a pivotal role in establishing the U.N. — remains a salient feature of the world peacekeeping body, despite the tectonic changes that have occurred over the past half a century and more. It is only natural, therefore, that efforts at U.N. reform should gain momentum. The focal point of reform is to expand the membership of the Security Council, including both permanent and nonpermanent members.

Japan expressed its desire to become a permanent member for the first time in a 1994 U.N. speech by then Foreign Minister Yohei Kono. The current foreign minister, Ms. Yoriko Kawaguchi, also said in her address to last year’s General Assembly session that Japan was “willing to fulfill its responsibilities more positively as a permanent member of the Security Council.”

Mr. Koizumi himself has been somewhat cautious about Japan’s joining the ranks of permanent members. He once headed a group of like-minded legislators. He also reacted cautiously to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s call for reform during his visit here in February. “All five permanent members have nuclear weapons, and they don’t rule out the use of force as a means of settling international disputes,” Mr. Koizumi said. “Japan is different. We should not create a misunderstanding that Japan can do the same thing (using force ) as the five nations.”

The comment hits the nail right on the head. Yet Mr. Koizumi’s more recent remarks suggest that he may be backing off from it. Does he think that the “misunderstanding” has disappeared? He now says Japan “should have a greater say in the international community.” But this kind of generality cannot convince a public that feels increasingly uneasy about the expanding overseas activities of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

In principle, there is nothing objectionable about the government’s explanation: Japan’s bid for permanent membership is based on its pacifist Constitution and on its contributions to international peace and stability. Translation: Japan is willing to play an even more active role in the U.N. while living up to the constitutional clause that says the nation will not use force as a means of settling international disputes.

In practice, though, SDF deployments since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, beginning with the dispatch of mine-sweeping vessels to the region, have raised constitutional issues. In particular, the inclusion of noncombat SDF troops in the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq has deepened public doubts. In fact, many suspect that the government may be trying to boost the national profile in the U.N. in the name of “international contributions.”

Recently a senior U.S. Department of State official reportedly said what the government has consistently avoided saying: To gain a permanent seat on the Security Council, Japan should first rewrite war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution and approve the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Now, an increasing number of Japanese are concerned that Japan as a permanent council member might well end up expanding its military role, thus further eroding the constitutional principle of peace and paving the way for a revision of Article 9.

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