Japan has found an unlikely ally in its intensifying campaign to secure a judge’s seat at the International Court of Justice.

According to Japanese government sources, China and Japan have agreed to vote for each other’s candidate in the autumn 2002 election for the 15-judge United Nations court, which is based in The Hague.

Tokyo has nominated Hisashi Owada, a former top career diplomat and father of the Crown Princess. If no other Asian country fields a candidate, Japan and China will almost certainly win the two seats allotted to the region.

The agreement comes at a time when diplomatic relations between the two neighbors have been at one of their lowest points since they were established in 1972.

Ties have been strained by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s planned visit to a shrine that honors Japan’s war dead, a dispute over a rightwing Japanese history textbook for junior high schools, and a tit-for-tat trade war triggered by Japan’s “safeguard” import restrictions on some Chinese farm products.

Owada, a 69-year-old former ambassador to the U.N., was put forward late last year as a potential successor to the retiring Japanese ICJ judge Shigeru Oda.

Oda has served three successive terms on the ICJ since 1976 and his current nine-year term expires in early 2003. .

Owada — president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a government-affiliated think tank in Tokyo — would be the third Japanese to take the post if elected. The late Kotaro Tanaka served from 1961 to 1970. Owada would likely serve only one nine-year term because of his age.

The other seat allocated to the region is held by a Chinese jurist, and if Beijing’s candidate also wins a seat, Japan and China will continue to dominate the Asian quota.

The ICJ is a permanent U.N. court handling legal conflicts between U.N. member countries. Its judges are elected by both the U.N. General Assembly and the 15-nation U.N. Security Council.

According to government sources, although China has agreed to vote with Japan, it has not promised to call on other nations to do so.

Other Asian countries have yet to formally announce candidates for the ICJ judges, but a few are still considering, including India, Indonesia and Thailand.

“China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council (along with the United States, Russia, Britain and France). It is almost a foregone conclusion that a Chinese candidate will be elected to the ICJ next year,” one government source said.

“Therefore, if any other Asian country puts up its own candidate, Japan will have to compete with that country for the one ICJ seat left for the region.”

Tokyo has been stepping up diplomatic efforts to woo votes from other U.N. member countries, especially those in Asia, in recent weeks.

Owada visited India last month, seeking its support for his candidacy.

Shin Ebihara, the director general of the Foreign Ministry’s treaty bureau, also made a whirlwind trip to Indonesia and Thailand last month to ask the two countries to refrain from fielding their own candidates.

For bureaucrats responsible for the ICJ campaign, winning a seat for Owada is almost a matter of life or death.

“We are confident that Mr. Owada will win the ICJ post because he is well known globally as a prominent professor of international law,” another government source said. “But we must avoid at any cost letting the Crown Princess’ father suffer the disgrace of an electoral defeat. If that happened, high-level government officials who are involved in the matter would have to tender letters of resignation.”

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