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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #141: September 15, 2004

Japan's Bid for a UNSC Seat and the Case for Hegemony in East Asia

John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)

Japan seems more interested in leading Asia than in cooperating with it. In an ideal context, leadership implies mature decision-making that caters to the greater good. True leaders know how to look beyond narrow national-self interests and are capable of maneuvering to avoid getting embroiled in conflicts that represent the precursor of hegemonic competition. The escalating row over what to call the sea that separates Japan from China, Russia and the two Koreas is characteristic of Japan's obsession with staking a claim to number one in East Asia by refusing to relinquish its ownership over what it calls the "Japan Sea." While genuine leadership would steer away from escalating this potentially explosive row, Japan has not hesitated to fuel to the fire by entering in a tit-for-tat with South Korean officials over which name came first: the Japan Sea, the Korean East Sea or the East Sea. Instead of seizing the opportunity to foment cooperation and good-will in the "region" by adopting some of the alternative names floated by a number of policy analysts, such as the "Sea of Tranquility" or "Friendly Sea," which would position the sea as a body of water that linked Japan with the rest of Asia, leadership in Japan has chosen to heighten the tension. What makes Japan's failure to promote cooperation even more problematic is the fact that East Asia could be on its way into a dark abyss brought on by a nuclear arms race.

This attitude adds meaning to Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations' Security Council. Although, Japan's search for a permanent seat has long been an objective of the government, it is obvious that Japan's primary motivation to join the exclusive club is not driven by a desire to promote global peace and prosperity. Rather, Japan's insistence on its membership is more reflective of its impulse to claim a hegemonic position among its neighbors in Asia. Faced with an ever powerful China, which is already a member of the council, Japan may be feeling, with increasing urgency, the need to secure its status as the pre-eminent power in East Asia.

Koizumi and his cabinet members insist that Japan needs a more "flexible" and "active" military force in order to contribute effectively as a Security Council member. Officials in the United States, such as deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, have alluded to the notion that Japan would have to revise Article 9 of its constitution, which renounces the use of force to resolve conflicts, in order to promote "world peace and security" as a Council member.

However, this is a fallacy. Japan has contributed greatly, in many cases more than most security council members, to the advancement of security and economic development in troubled places such as Sri Lanka, East Timor, the Palestinian Authority, Mozambique, Cambodia and the Balkans. Japan has participated vigorously in UN peace-keeping missions and has developed extremely specialized logistic capabilities critical to the functioning of any UN humanitarian mission. There simply exists no compelling reason why Japan would have to revoke or revise Article 9 of its constitution, or extend its military freedom of movement, in order to fulfill a meaningful role in the United Nations Security Council.

The behavior of senior Japanese government officials in recent times is indicative of their want to cooperate with the West while directing the East. On the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF), Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the Director of Japan's Defense Agency, Shigeru Ishiba, called for the emergence of an SDF that was a more "flexible" and "active" force in the world. While this policy direction is applauded by officials in the United States, it runs contrary to the wishes of all in East Asia. Daily reports voicing concern over what is viewed as the first step towards the reassertion of Japan's military presence in the region are issued by news agencies in China, North and South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, among others. In reality, the Koizumi administrations doggedness about ‘normalizing' Japan's SDF has little to do with positioning itself as a legitimate contender for a seat on the UNSC and more about posturing as a leader in a region engaged in hegemonic competition.

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