Why did Japan abstain when the Security Council voted on preventing a potential genocide in South Sudan?

Two weeks ago, UN chief Ban-Ki Moon appealed to the 15 members of the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan, which has been mired in armed conflict since 2013. The raging civil war has so far claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced 3 million people. But with violence now escalating along ethnic lines between the tribal groups Nuer and Dinka, the UN Human Rights Commission for South Sudan has warned the conflict is teetering on the brink of a “potential genocide,” with ethnic cleansing already under way in some regions in the country.

Despite Ban’s plea to the international body to act and prevent the conflict from escalating, the US-drafted resolution failed to meet the minimum of 9 affirmative votes, with 8 members abstaining. One country’s abstention stood out in particular, however. The decision of Japan, a staunch supporter of global human security and longtime ally of the US, to not back the resolution was highly unusual and caused frustration in Washington. So what motivated Japan to refrain from backing a resolution which aimed at halting the escalation of a civil war?

The abstaining countries on the council (besides permanent members China and Russia, Venezuela, Malaysia, Angola, Senegal, Egypt, and Japan) were not swayed by US ambassador Samantha Power’s argument that “it stands to reason when a country is potentially on the brink of genocide or full-on ethnic conflict, fewer arms are better than more arms.” They either did not support the resolution due to outright opposition to the adoption of coercive measures or feared the embargo would be counterproductive to current efforts at finding a political solution to the conflict. The abstaining members maintained South Sudan should be allowed more time and a show of goodwill from the international community in reaching a peaceful end to the conflict, especially after President Salva Kiir’s December 2016 announcement of an inclusive national dialogue.

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Japanese peacekeepers arriving in South Sudan

Japan also had another, more personal reason to abstain from voting. Tokyo has deployed peacekeepers to South Sudan as early as 2012, and currently contributes 350 troops to the UN mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Its most recent deployment to Juba, which commenced in November last year, is different though from previous assignments. Following legislation which was passed in 2015 in Japan’s Diet, the combat engineers of the Japan Ground Self Defense Force (JGSDF) have now been given an expanded set of duties and new rules of engagement. For the first time since World War II, Japanese troops are deployed abroad with the ability and permission to use force.

As an article by The Diplomat details:

[For the] first time since the beginning of Japan’s involvement in South Sudan in 2012, the military engineers will be allowed to come to the rescues of UN staff and non-governmental organizations’ personnel under armed attack using deadly force.

Claiming the measures outlined in the US-drafted resolution, if adopted, would antagonize Kiir’s government (in particular through the targeted sanctions included in the resolution towards two key South Sudanese officials), Japan argued it did not want to put the lives of peacekeepers at risk. The expressed safety concerns reflect the sensitive nature of UN peacekeeping missions in Japanese domestic politics. While partly induced by a national trauma in the early 90s when Japan suffered two fatalities during the UNTAC mission in Cambodia, this is mainly the result of a society split on the role of its military and on the question of whether Japanese troops should be able to use force in conflicts abroad.

But Japan’s decision to side with the more illiberal-minded group of states in the Security Council might have been driven by other reasons as well. While its concern for the lives of UN peacekeepers is probably genuine, Tokyo has more to lose from antagonizing President Kiir. Japan’s engagement with South Sudan extends beyond its peacekeeping duties. As usual when it concerns an African state, the country’s array of natural riches are involved. In 2013, Japan’s Toyota Corporation announced plans to construct a pipeline to Kenya which would transport South Sudan’s huge oil reserves through the Kenyan port of Lamu, instead of having to export it through the lands of northern neighbor Sudan.

05926dd6-26f9-11df-8c08-00144feabdc0While the pipeline itself, part of a larger regional infrastructure project for Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan known as LAPSSET, is pending agreement far from completed, it has turned Japan into a major actor and stakeholder in South Sudanese and regional politics. When South Sudan achieved independence in 2011, it gained control of about 75% of Sudanese oil fields. A devastating blow to Sudan’s petroleum-based economy, which since has relied for part of its governmental budget on the fees it charges land-locked South Sudan for using its pipelines and facilities to export crude oil. But once South Sudan is able to export its oil via the alternative pipeline, most of Juba’s economic ties with Khartoum would be effectively severed, further crippling Sudan’s economy.

Moreover, the proposed pipeline has pitted Japan, which despite a weakening demand for fossil resources is still one of the largest oil importers worldwide, against China. The Asian behemoth has been a major foreign stakeholder in both countries for some time, accounting for half of Sudan’s total exports and being the destination for virtually all of South Sudan’s exports, with South Sudanese oil making up about 5 percent of China’s annual crude oil imports. The existing pipelines, stretching from South Sudan’s oil fields to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, were financed and built by China.

While China’s sales of light arms to South Sudan’s government received ample attention and criticism, the question of who receives South Sudan’s oil is one which has now turned the country into a stage for Japanese-Chinese rivalry. While both Tokyo and Beijing have a vested interest at the moment in supporting South Sudan’s government, as the production of South Sudanese oil depends on stability in the country and is still transported using Chinese-built pipelines up north, this might change once the alternative route takes shape.

Another reason why Japan did not succumb under diplomatic pressure from Washington to support the UNSC resolution, has to do with Japan’s overall engagement with Africa. Back in 2000, Japan was Africa’s largest Asian economic partner. Though Beijing has since then clearly taken the lead over Tokyo, Japanese foreign direct investment still increased more than tenfold over the past one-and-a-half decade, totaling $10.5 billion in 2014.

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Prime Minister Abe during the closing ceremony of TICAD VI

While its approach to the continent is still often framed according to established notions of development assistance rather than a more private sector-driven strategy, which has been adopted by Asian competitors India and China, Japan  is slowly swapping its policies for a more pragmatic attitude. Last year, the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) took place in Nairobi, Kenya, which was the first time the conference was held in Africa since its participants started convening in 1993. Japan aims to boost its ties with Africa, looking to jump-start domestic growth and gain access to African resources.

Besides economic riches, African states also hold something else which is precious to Japan. A vote in the UN General Assembly on reform of the Security Council. Japan is the most prominent non-permanent member on the Security Council, having been elected a record 11th time to the body in 2015, boosting the 3rd-largest economy in the world, and being the only non-Western power with a seat at the G7. Yet it is this very status which Tokyo has been itching to lose for years now.

Though Japan is the second-largest contributor to the UN regular budget (after the US), it still has to fight for acceptance and acknowledgement of its great power standing in the Security Council. Emerging powers India and Brazil, and established powers Germany and Japan (known as the G4) have advocated for an updated body which would do more justice to the shifted balance of power in the world. Ahead of Japan’s assumption of its non-permanent seat in 2016, Prime Minister Abe promised in his speech on the occasion of the 70-year anniversary of the UN to redouble efforts at pushing the reform agenda.

But reform requires the support of 129 nations in the General Assembly. As African nations constitute one-third of all members in the UN General assembly, gaining their backing is pivotal to Japan in achieving its goal. During a previous attempt in 2005, the G4 nations failed to reach an agreement with African countries (united under the umbrella of the African Union) regarding Security Council reform. This failure also stemmed in part from Chinese opposition to a permanent seat for Japan, with Beijing pressuring African nations to block reform.

Japan is wary, therefore, of antagonizing African nations. Abstaining was a logical decision to Japanese policymakers as the three African UNSC members Egypt, Senegal and Angola did not support the concept of an arms embargo. Moreover, many African nations view the South Sudanese conflict as an internal, African matter, and stress the need to respect Juba’s sovereignty. The AU Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui said in July 2016 that “The UN doesn’t have the mandate to impose peace,” while at a conference which approved the deployment of a regional force to the region under an AU mandate. Japan would have likely lost important footing among African states if it would have backed the countermeasures proposed in the resolution.

There is no easy and short answer to the question of why Japan abstained from voting on December 23rd, with multiple interests intertwined on a national, regional and global level. When Samantha Power’s publicly questioned Japan’s reluctance in advance of the ballot, calling it “a highly questionable logic to think that the way to keep your peacekeepers safe is to not support an arms embargo,” she was shaming Japanese diplomats in a last-ditch attempt to convince America’s ally of the need to impose an arms embargo. The effort failed, leaving South Sudanese citizens to enter the new year fearful of what might await.

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