The Multilateralist

The UN’s vanishing act in Asia

The UN’s vanishing act in Asia

By all appearances, the threat of military confrontation is growing in the Pacific. News that a Chinese vessel locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese ship is only the most alarming recent development. China and the Philippine squared off recently as well.

Given the evident danger of conflict involving major powers, one might think that the world’s institutional answer to the problem of conflict—the United Nations, and specifically its Security Council—would be knee-deep in Asia’s troubled waters. In fact, the Asian maritime crises are not even on the Security Council’s agenda. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (who hails from South Korea) occasionally ruminates on the danger of the dispute and pleas for negotiations, but he is a peripheral player at best.

It’s not hard to explain the UN’s absence. China is a veto-wielding permanent Council member and is adamantly opposed to elevating the dispute to the multilateral level (at the regional level, China has worked hard to prevent ASEAN from reaching a common position). It’s not clear that the United States or Japan sees any useful role for the United Nations at the moment. No other involved state has forced the issue onto the Council’s agenda.

In many ways, today’s Security Council is frenetically active. It meets almost every day, supervises more than a dozen peacekeeping and observer missions, monitors sanctions regimes, and debates weighty topics such as how to advance the rule of law in the world. But this veneer of constant activity masks an inability to grapple substantively with some of the world’s most critical security issues–including Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, U.S. counterterrorism policies, and Asia’s territorial disputes. A huge chunk of the Council’s work is on matters of tangential importance to major powers—specifically weak internal governance in (mostly) African states. The UN was designed above all to prevent another global conflagration; more than sixty years on, the organization still struggles to be relevant in the crises most likely to spark one.