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Japan’s Evolving Role in the UN

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Japan’s Evolving Role in the UN

Can Japan continue to be a “peace enabler” in the United Nations?

Japan’s Evolving Role in the UN
Credit: United Nations photo

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Japan’s UN membership. Having just started its two-year term as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, Japan’s involvement in the UN is a high-priority for the Abe government’s foreign policy agenda this year.

Already, as the United Nations celebrated its 70th anniversary, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke at the UN General Assembly on September 29, 2015 and reaffirmed his government’s commitment to nation-building through “fostering human resources, offering utmost in humanitarian assistance and upholding women’s rights.” Abe also emphasized that Japan’s intent to actively participate in UN endeavors to tackle global challenges would remain a core pillar of the country’s foreign policy.

To date, Japan is already playing a big (if sometimes quiet) role as a “peace enabler.” After all, Japan remains the world’s second-largest financial contributor to the UN as of 2015. Although still few in numbers, there is an emerging generation of young professionals who are enthusiastic about pursuing careers in areas related to international peacekeeping. The Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF), though its participation in peacekeeping operations (PKOs) has been restricted to non-combatant missions, has been successful in implementing its responsibilities and has established a solid reputation for its performance.

As Abe alluded to in his September 2015 speech to the UN General Assembly, Japan’s contributions have been most effective when working to bridge the gaps between phases of operations or gaps in capacity between the provider and recipient of assistance. With its enduring commitment, particularly in connecting aid providers and recipients as partners in pursuing the shared goal of development, Japan has made many positive contributions under UN auspices for peace.

Clearly, Abe is interested in leading Japan to play an even bigger role as a “peace enabler” on the world stage.  However, there are definite challenges Japan will need to address as it as it continues to pursue its goal.

First and foremost, Japan can no longer expect to continue to hold a certain level of influence in the UN simply due to the size of its financial contribution. Although Japan remains the second-largest financial contributor to the UN’s annual budget through 2016, China is quickly catching up. As Japanese financial woes continue, Japan’s diminishing financial footprint in the UN seems an inevitability.

If it is going to become increasingly difficult for Japan to maintain its presence through financial contributions, how can Japan play a larger role in the range of UN activities?  There are at least two other ways in which Japan can contribute: sending more Japanese to work for and with UN agencies to better represent Japan in UN activities and offering innovative approaches to help the UN and its member states to address challenges facing the international community.

Unfortunately, to date Japan has not been successful in either. Japan has not been able to develop human resources that are capable and willing to work in UN agencies. The problem is not a lack of talent. Rather, the inflexible nature of career development in Japan is prohibitive for working professionals to develop a career path through any way other than long-term employment.

Meanwhile, even if the JSDF can (and should) play an effective role by working more closely with the UN and other countries contributing troops to UN PKOs, Japan is still very much restricted in the types of mission that it can participate in. Despite last year’s changes to the legal framework, allowing a little more latitude in the scope of activities that the JSDF can join, Japan still lacks the flexibility to respond quickly to changes on the ground and the resulting modifications of UN mandates. That level of flexibility will not be possible until the Japanese Diet and the public allow for revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. If the intensity of the debate leading to the passage of the recent security legislation is any guide, such a change in the near future, if ever, is highly unlikely. Given these circumstances, Japan is unlikely to soon see a surge in the number of Japanese working in UN agencies or participating in UN-led efforts.

Moving forward, if Japan remains committed to becoming a more robust player in many of the UN-led peace-building activities, being “proactive” is more essential than ever. For instance, Japan should consider reconstructing its financial contributions to the United Nations so that it can have maximum impact. To the issue of Japanese representation in UN agencies, the Japanese government should look into establishing partnerships with universities and corporations through which aspiring professionals have the opportunity to work in international organizations, without the fear of losing employment at home.

Furthermore, Japan’s contributions in many of UN-led efforts have either gone unnoticed or without full credit, because Japan has often been slow in responding to calls by the United Nations for contributions. Japan should also continue to seek to be a part of the UN policymaking process, as the United Nations seeks to shape international responses to global challenges. By participating in such endeavors from the very beginning, Japan can help direct such efforts, rather than waiting to hear what the UN has decided.

Japan is ideally positioned to take such an initiative this year. In 2016, Japan will be hosting several global meetings, including the Tokyo International Conference of African Development (TICAD) in Kenya and the G-7 Summit in Japan. Certainly, Japan’s membership in UN Security Council will be helpful to this end.

Since returning to office in December 2012, Abe has launched many ideas and initiatives. The last two years have been critical for Japan, as the Abe government made major changes to the framework of postwar Japan’s foreign and security policies. Now 2016 should be the year of implementation, executing concrete policies grounded in the guiding principle of a “proactive contribution for peace based on international cooperation.”

This article is based on Stimson Center’s new publication Japan as a Peace Enabler: Views from the Next Generation, edited by Yuki Tatsumi. 

Yuki Tatsumi is Senior Associate of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. Hana Rudolph is a research assistant with the East Asia Program at Stimson.