Chinese To Press Claim For Okinawa?
With China’s growing economic power, we’ve also seen a growth in Chinese interest in controlling the sea lanes around it while also pressing claims for lands that may or may not have been under Chinese control. For more than a year, for example, there’s been a standoff between China and Japan over a bunch of islands in the East China Sea inhabited mostly by animals that has raised nationalist ire in both countries. Now, though, there are calls in China for the government to make a claim that would be seen as far more serious in Japanese eyes:
BEIJING — A group of Chinese scholars, analysts and military officials convened on a recent morning in a spartan schoolroom to draw attention to China’s simmering territorial dispute with Japan. Participants spoke in urgent tones. Reporters took notes. A spirit of solidarity reigned.
But the deliberations were not about the barren rocks in the East China Sea that are known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan and that the two nations have been sparring over with competing naval patrols.
Instead, the group that gathered at Renmin University was focused on a more enticing prize — Japan’s southernmost island chain, which includes the strategic linchpin of Okinawa, home to 1.3 million Japanese citizens, not to mention 27,000 American troops.
The Chinese government itself has not asserted a claim to Okinawa or the other isles in the Ryukyu chain. But the seminar last month, which included state researchers and retired officers from the senior ranks of the People’s Liberation Army, was the latest act in what seems to be a semiofficial campaign in China to question Japanese rule of the islands.
A magazine affiliated with the Chinese Foreign Ministry published a four-page spread on the issue in March. People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, weighed in next with an op-ed by two scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Two more pieces appeared in Global Times, another state newspaper.
And a week before the seminar, a hawkish Chinese military official argued that the Japanese did not have sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands because its inhabitants paid tribute to Chinese emperors hundreds of years before they started doing so to Japan.
“For now, let’s not discuss whether they belong to China — they were certainly China’s tributary state,” the official, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, told the state-run China News Service. “I am not saying all former tributary states belong to China, but we can say with certainty that the Ryukyus do not belong to Japan.”
Another senior Chinese military official appeared to back off those remarks. The official, Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo, a deputy chief of staff, assured a conference in Singapore this month that China’s position on the islands had not changed. “Scholars are free to put forward any ideas they want,” he said. “It doesn’t represent the views of the Chinese government.”
But almost all the voices in China pressing the Okinawa issue are affiliated in some way with the government. Many of them, including General Luo, are known for spouting nationalistic views that can go beyond the official line — and for being called on to do so when it serves a wider propaganda goal.
In this case, the goal may be to strengthen China’s claim on the islands known as the Senkaku and the Diaoyu, more than 250 miles west of Okinawa. Tensions have been running high since September, when the Japanese government bought three of the islands from a private owner. Japan said it did so to prevent them from falling into radical nationalist hands, but the move prompted protests in China.
Analysts say that Beijing may be raising the prospect of a simultaneous dispute over the Okinawa chain to strengthen its negotiating hand and convey to Japanese officials that the Chinese government must contend with nationalist public sentiment, too.
That this is part of a negotiating ploy on the part of the Chinese seems like the most reasonable explanation for what’s going on here. Surely the Chinese know that any serious claim that involved Okinawa or the other islands in that chain would be seen as a serious provocation both by the United States and the Japanese. However, allowing the issue to be discussed openly in the Chinese media while negotiating with the Japanese over the other island chains at issue gives them a chance to say that they are making a concession even if they have no serious intention of ever putting forward a claim on Okinawa.