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Beijing Pushes Claim on…Okinawa?

Who owns Okinawa Island, roughly 400 miles south of the main Japanese islands and the largest of the Ryukyu group of volcanic islands that stretches from Japan to Taiwan? That depends on who you ask. To most of the world Okinawa is thoroughly Japanese. But look far enough back in time and the facts are not so clear: Okinawans once paid tribute to Chinese emperors. A number of hawkish Chinese officials with links to the national government have seized on this fact, questioning the Japanese version of history, and are even pushing China to make a formal claim for Okinawa and smaller islands in its vicinity.

“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,” the notoriously hawkish Major General Luo Yuan told the state-run China News Service. “Though it may seem far-fetched for China to have any claim over Okinawa, where tens of thousands of Japanese and American troops were killed in World War II and the United States still maintains several military bases, Chinese nationalists have for years pointed out that the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom made tribute payments to imperial China,” reports Jane Perlez for the New York Times.

Far-fetched or not, there is a semi-official campaign within China to push Beijing to claim the islands as Chinese. Big spreads on the issue have appeared in government run newspapers. Universities have hosted seminars to discuss the Chinese claim. Generals and scholars with ties to the government have published opinion pieces and argued publicly that Okinawa is Chinese.

The reason for this is mostly strategic. Adding Okinawa to the list of territorial disputes between China and Japan builds pressure on Tokyo. And the Ryukyus lie between mainland China and the Pacific: “Zhang Haipeng…said Okinawa was important to China’s ambitions of projecting naval power into the Pacific Ocean, noting that the Ryukyu are at the northern edge of a chain of islands that include Taiwan and part of the Philippines, both of which Beijing regards as American allies alongside Japan,” writes Perlez. Moreover, Okinawans have a grudge against Tokyo for saddling their faraway island with American bases after World War II. When Okinawans protested recently in Tokyo against the heavy American presence on their island, mainland Japanese heckled them and branded them lackeys of Beijing. China could capitalize on the anti-US, anti-Japan sentiment in Okinawa. “Our navy wants to push through the island chains and reach the eastern Pacific,” Mr. Zhang said at a seminar devoted to the Ryukyu issue. “As my wife says, if the Ryukyu were independent, this problem would be solved.”

But Okinawa is no uninhabited rock like the Senkakus or the Paracels: 1.3 million people live on the island. About 27,000 US troops are stationed there. Most Japanese, though sometimes disdainful of Okinawan problems, would hardly tolerate the idea of allowing the island to become independent or part of China.

The growing chorus of hawks pushing Beijing into claiming or fighting for Okinawa is yet another example of growing nationalism across Asia. This kind of sentiment is pushing national governments from Tokyo to Delhi into increasingly confrontational stances toward one another. Territorial disputes frequently flare up into collisions between fishing boats and police vessels, close calls between surveillance vessels and warships, or troops camping out in foreign territory. And more than just tiny uninhabited rocks and islets are occasions for dispute; if China were to make an unlikely push for Okinawa, the world would see real trouble.

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  • Philopoemen

    Will anyone really take this seriously? By that logic, Italy could claim ownership of most of Europe, the Levant, and northern Africa.

    • rheddles

      And just think what the UK could claim. But do they have anything to kinetically back up their claim? China does. That’s the message. The same one Islam makes. And Mexicans.

      • Philopoemen

        They do and they don’t. It seems more than likely that any invasion of Okinawa would be met with fierce opposition, to say the least, especially with an American base there. The premise is so absurd and the scenario is so bleak that I can’t see this as any more than an idle threat or simple demagogy.

        • rheddles

          I see it as simple bullying to try to get some advantage in the Senkaku standoff or the Spratleys. By simply making the claim, others must wonder, Are they really that crazy? And if they are, are they crazy enough to go to war? And it puts the Chinese on the offensive and everyone else on the defensive.

          I also see it as diverting the attention of the domestic disaffected toward barbaric foreigners. And energizing them for war so that the threats are even more credible.

          The French and British were far stronger than the Germans in 1939. Why didn’t they win in a walk away?

          • Philopoemen

            I appreciate the historical viewpoint, but this isn’t 1939. Do you really think China would go to war with the US and Japan? I think we’ve passed the technological inflexion point after which wars between armies of that magnitude become too dangerous to consider.

            Furthermore, the US/Japan and Chinese economies are so tightly intertwined that the immediate economic effects alone – before the first bullet has flown – would be disastrous for all involved.

          • rheddles

            The Chinese see the world differently than we. The last 200 years have been humiliating for a civilization that thought itself the center of the world. There’ll plenty of them who think it’s time to even the score. And those are the ones who feel comfortable in the military. If the Communist Party looses control of the PLA in a period of economic dislocation?

            The whole Western Pacific is looking a lot like Europe, 1914. It is easy to imagine China taking its bullying of some minor state too far and a cascade of wars starting that envelop us all.

            As for the feasibility of war, reread Norman Angell’s Great Illusion and consider the stupidity on display by the enlightened European Superpowers from 1914 to 1918.

            And like Germany, China’s window of opportunity will close soon and they know it. By 2035 the average age in China will be older than in the US. And their per capita will be well below ours. So I see our period of maximum risk for war from China being 2015-2025.

            To see how little control we have over what happens, one must reconsider the situation in Japan between the wars. It’s harder to believe granting equality at the Washington Naval Conference would have changed anything because they wanted to be a European empire when the European empires had just committed suicide. Who know under what, from our perspective, delusions the Chinese decision makers will be operating.

          • Atanu Maulik

            If China does not learn to temper its temper tantrums, the next two centuries can be even more humiliating for them than the last two.

    • Phalon

      Or with even more relevance, imagine what Japan could claim…

  • Atanu Maulik

    The Chinese are making it really easy for the US. Pretty soon all of Asia will be sitting on America’s lap.

  • michaelj68

    If the rule is going to be China can claim any territory that paid tribute during its Imperial past then you have to include Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, and Korea. Also on the list are Great Britain, Netherlands, and Portugal. If you wanted any sort of diplomatic and/or economic relationship with Imperial China you had to make some tribute payment.

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