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.
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.
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.