It has become an annual event. At about the same time that the cherry blossoms in Tokyo are at their peak, Japan faces a big foreign-policy headache: how to respond to the United States-led efforts to censure China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

“We want to avoid hurting relations with both the U.S. and China. At this time every year, we are put in a position where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” one senior Japanese government official said, requesting anonymity.

Nearly every year since the bloody military suppression in June 1989 of prodemocracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the U.S., a self-proclaimed champion of human rights and democracy, has submitted a resolution condemning the Communist-ruled country to the 53-member U.N. commission.

Each time the resolution is submitted, China counters by presenting a “no-action motion” to the same body to block consideration of the resolution.

Before and during the commission’s annual sessions, both the U.S. and China would launch a massive lobbying campaign to win the vote of as many commission votes as possible. The scoreboard: China has won all but one of its diplomatic battles at the human rights commission.

China has so far succeeded in getting its no-action motion passed and preventing the U.S.-led resolution from actually being put to a vote, except in 1995, when the no-action motion was defeated and the U.S.-initiated resolution was put to a vote. Eventually, the latter was killed by a hair-thin margin of one vote.

One can ask, what attitude has Japan taken toward the China issue at the U.N. over the past decade?

The pattern so far

Japan has consistently voted against China’s no-action motion. And Japan also cast its vote for the U.S.-sponsored resolution criticizing China’s human rights conditions in 1995.

Although Japan joined the U.S. in sponsoring an anti-China resolution almost every year at Washington’s request until 1996, it has since refrained from doing so. The 15-nation European Union has also refused to become a cosponsor of an anti-China resolution, at least as a bloc, in recent years.

Japanese officials say that Japan has eschewed becoming a cosponsor of a resolution critical of since 1997, in recognition of some significant — albeit far from sufficient – improvements on the Asian neighbor’s human rights record.

As examples, the officials cite Beijing’s signing of International Covenants on Human Rights, the release from jail of some political prisoners and an agreement to hold a regular high-level dialogue with Tokyo on human rights issues.

For Japan, relations with the U.S. and China are both so important that it is quite difficult to take sides. The U.S. is by far Japan’s most important ally and China is a giant Asian neighbor with the population of nearly 1.3 billion, the world’s largest. The two are also Japan’s two biggest trading partners.

The stance Japan has taken toward the China issue at the U.N. commission since 1997 is apparently in line with a compromise reached within the Foreign Ministry — especially between the North American affairs bureau, which takes a U.S.-first stance, and the Asian affairs bureau, which takes a China-first stance — after a tough tug-of-war behind the scenes.

The new Republican administration of President George W. Bush, which took office on Jan. 20, has taken a harder approach toward China than the previous Democratic administration of Bill Clinton and has vowed to again submit an anti-China resolution to the U.N. Human Rights Commission this year.

The new resolution is widely expected to condemn the communist leadership in Beijing over, among other things, the situation in Tibet, the lack of political and religious freedom, and the continued crackdown on the Falun Gong meditation group, which China outlawed nearly two years ago as a “cult.”

According to government sources, the Bush administration has already asked Japan informally to become a cosponsor of the resolution this year. Unlike in the past years, however, China has not yet asked Japan to refuse to become a cosponsor of any such resolution, the sources said.

Japanese officials say that Japan has not yet made a final decision on how to act at the current session of the commission. A vote on the no-action motion will be put to vote first, probably around April 20.

“We have been discussing the matter. But we will wait until the last minute before making a final decision on how to act, because we do not want to cause unnecessary trouble to relations with both countries” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

“Anyway, as in the past, the matter is so important that a final decision will be left to the prime minister,” the official said, on condition that he not be named.

But how Japan will behave at the U.N. Human Rights Commission this year seems to be a foregone conclusion: refraining from cosponsoring an anti-China resolution but voting against a no-action motion — and voting for an anti-China resolution if it is actually put to vote following the death of the no-action motion.

As the official himself acknowledged frankly, it may be almost impossible for Japan to break a fine balance of opposing views between the Foreign Ministry’s North American bureau and its Asian bureau by deviating from its post-1997 policy toward the China issue at the commission.

Although Japan has consistently voted against a no-action motion submitted by China, what it really hopes apparently is the motion’s passage. Japan also apparently does not want to cast its vote for an anti-China resolution again as it did in 1995, something that would irritate Communist leaders in Beijing.

Those leaders believe that Japan can claim no moral high-ground over China because of its past aggression — and atrocities — against mainland China and is not entitled to criticize human rights record there.

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