UN Security Council Adds Australia, S. Korea — Does This Strengthen a US Asian 'Pivot'?

Australia Foreign Minister Bob Carr (R) during the United Nations General Assembly session October 18, 2012 before the vote for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council for the years 2013-2014 in New York. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday, when the United Nations voted on five of the 10 non-permanent seats of its Security Council, the United States gained the support of two key Asia-Pacific allies: Australia and South Korea. 

Australia allowed a U.S. troop presence earlier this year, while the U.S. has had a long-standing military force in Korea since the Korean War.

In the event of an escalation of tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S., one of the five permanent Security Council members, could now find greater support in pursuing actions favorable to its interests in the region. More importantly, the U.S. will have additional multilateral support to legitimize its actions. 

Thursday's vote came on the heels of the U.S.'s unambiguous military, economic, and diplomatic march — or "pivot," as it has been called — toward increased Pacific engagement driven by the region's increasing economic importance.

Although the Commander of the Pacific Air Forces, General Herbert Carlisle, indicated in September that the U.S. wouldn't fight over a "rock" in the ocean, tensions over regional maritime claims have escalated in recent months. 

The U.S. is obligated through mutual defense treaties to come to the aid of not only South Korea and Australia, but also Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Thailand. 

Carlisle said with respect to a burgeoning China, "History doesn't have a lot of examples of existing powers and rising powers managing to get along well. ... It's hard to find in history where those were managed properly." 

Undoubtedly those states contesting China's maritime claims — particularly Southeast Asian states — will welcome a strengthened military alliance in the region backed by Security Council membership. Southeast Asian countries have shown increasing willingness to confront China in defense of territorial claims in the South China Sea region, while the intensity of Japan and China's squabbles has grown over the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands.

Meanwhile in North Korea, 10 months after Kim Jong Un took over power from his deceased father, living conditions in the country are reportedly getting harder. An acceleration of aggressive action by the DPRK, such as the missile launch in April of this year, would now be more likely to draw further Security Council sanctions, or even military action. 

Australia, which sank a reported $25 million in its effort to secure a two-year temporary slot, won a non-permanent seat as part of the Western Europe and Others Group, a mélange of countries comprised primarily of Western European states, Canada, and Australasia.

Instead of competing with its geographically proximal neighbors, Australia competed for two spaces with Finland and Luxembourg, each more than 9,000 miles away. Luxembourg was the other winner in the group. (Argentina and Rwanda rounded out the five nations voted in.)   

In the Asia-Pacific group, South Korea took the single space being contested, beating out Cambodia and Bhutan in the process.

With Cambodia's loss, China's position on Asian security will be somewhat weakened. The two countries have shown increasing willingness to support one another, both on issues of international development cooperation, as well as international security matters.  

Of course the relative importance of the Security Council is often called into question, given its failure to act on key crises like the 1994 genocide in Rwanda or find consensus more recently on trouble spots like Libya and Syria.

Reform in the Security Council has long been discussed, but achieving reform equitably has remained an elusive prospect. Opening permanent seats on the council to the G4 — Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan — is opposed by several other European Union States, as well as South Korea.  

Still, the U.S., with the support of Australia and South Korea, now has the additional backing necessary to bolster a legal multilaterally-supported security approach in the Asia-Pacific region. 

It remains to be seen whether the present Security Council configuration — bolstered by two new Asia-Pacific members — will placate, or further embroil, tempers in the region.

What is certain is that key issues of global concern are likely to test the Security Council's consensus-building capacity over the next two years.

About the Author

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Andrew Billo is Assistant Director for Policy in the Asia Society's New York Public Programs office. He previously worked for six years on migration issues in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.