Japan’s long-cherished desire to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council remains as strong as ever, but realizing that aspiration in the near future is becoming extremely difficult in the face of stiff objections from certain countries. The government’s strategy for expanding the council, worked out in tandem with three other aspirants to permanent membership — Germany, India and Brazil — needs a wholesale review.

The four countries, known as the G4, have decided not to seek a General Assembly vote on their joint proposal, despite months of careful preparations and vigorous efforts to secure votes. The G4 plan — the “framework resolution” — called for increasing the number of permanent members from five to 11 (including two from Africa) and that of nonpermanent members from 10 to 14.

One major reason behind the decision is that the quartet has failed to win the support of the 53-member African Union. In addition, China, the only permanent member from Asia, has mounted an aggressive campaign to block the Japanese bid. The United States, moreover, has flatly rejected the G4 initiative, thus effectively closing the door to Japanese entry as a permanent member. A critical view prevailing here is that the Foreign Ministry may have been too optimistic in its analysis of the situation.

According to the ministry’s scenario, Japan was to be welcomed as a permanent Security Council member at September’s special U.N. summit of world leaders. Now that the plan has collapsed, it is necessary to devise a new strategy based on a comprehensive postmortem. One basic lesson here is that a campaign for council reform requires a great deal of patience.

The Japanese proposal to add six permanent members was in line with a report prepared last December by a high-level advisory panel to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. On that basis, Japan pursued, rightly, a multilateral strategy of enlarging the council in partnership with Germany — which followed a similar recovery path after the end of World War II — and other major countries.

The G4’s common strategy was to secure the backing of at least 128, or two-thirds, of U.N. members, for the framework resolution. That effort was directed mainly at the African Union, whose support was considered essential. Initially, Japan, a major aid donor to Africa, appeared to have a good chance of winning hearts and minds in the region.

In July, however, the AU announced its own plan, dealing a heavy blow to the G4 strategy. The two sides tried to integrate their plans into a joint resolution, but to no avail. The union, racked by internal power struggles, is not a monolithic group. Yet Japan seemed to adopt a selective approach, targeting only influential members, without fully examining the African situation.

China’s opposition had been expected, yet its aggressive campaign to win over African nations, not just Asian nations, to its side has come as a surprise. No doubt chilly relations between Tokyo and Beijing, stemming in part from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, have increased Chinese antagonism.

The U.S. response has deeply disappointed those Japanese who expected American backing. While giving explicit support for Tokyo’s bid, Washington has flatly rejected the G4 plan, thus effectively closing the door to Japanese entry as a permanent member. It may be that the Foreign Ministry had overestimated the personal relationship of trust between Prime Minister Koizumi and President George W. Bush. The U.S. administration maintained that permanent membership should be granted only to Japan and perhaps one more country. It is easy to imagine that America, like China and perhaps other permanent members, want to keep the status quo.

Another major contributor to the demise of the G4 design was the “Uniting for Consensus” group, a coalition of countries opposed to the G4 drive to gain permanent council seats. The consensus alliance, including South Korea and Pakistan, proposed that the nonpermanent membership be doubled to 20 but that the five-nation permanent lineup be kept unchanged.

The rationale for expanding the Security Council is that its functions must be substantially improved if it is to more accurately reflect the realities of the international situation. That argument, however, appeared to fall flat in the face of the competing or conflicting interests of nations.

It is unclear how proposed U.N. reforms will develop in coming months and years. One thing should be clear, however: The momentum for reform must be maintained. The U.N., for all its acknowledged failings, is by far the most important forum of the world.

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