By now the narrative is familiar: China, brandishing a sheaf of faded maps and records, questions the basis of Japan’s authority over islands in the East China Sea. The dispute summons bitter memories of the Middle Kingdom’s humiliation at the hands of its neighbor starting in the late 19th century, but also heightens fears that Beijing is abandoning its decade-old mantra of “peaceful rise” to become the revisionist power its neighbors and Washington fear.
For the last year, this has been the tale of the Senkaku Islands, a remote cluster of rocks whose only mammalian inhabitants are goats and an endangered race of moles. China’s claim to the islets, which it calls Diaoyu, dates back at least four decades, but tensions have heightened since the Japanese government announced last year that it would purchase them from a private owner.
Just last week, however, Beijing opened up a new front in the dispute. On Wednesday, China’s leading state-run newspaper, the People’s Daily, ran a piece questioning the status of Okinawa, home to 1.4 million Japanese citizens as well as 25,000 U.S. troops. Its authors, two scholars at a government-backed think tank, surveyed the history of the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is easily the most important, and concluded that the legitimacy of Japan’s rule over the chain is “unresolved.” When pressed for comment, China’s Foreign Ministry refused to affirm that the Ryukyus are part of Japan, instead reiterating that “the Diaoyu Islands,” which sit to Okinawa’s west, “are China’s inherent territory,” and not part of the Ryukyus. This is hardly the first time that nationalists have attempted to sow doubt about Okinawa, but never before have questions about Japanese sovereignty been entertained at such a high level.
The Ryukyus arc from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands, towards Taiwan. Most of their residents are indigenous Ryukyuans, a group of peoples who have traditionally spoken their own Japonic languages and maintained political and trade ties with both China and Japan. Even before the unification of Okinawa and surrounding islands under a single king in the 15th century, the Ryukyuans were tributaries of the Ming Dynasty. But after their king refused to help the Japanese daimyo Hideyoshi invade Korea in the 1590s, the islands were subjugated by a feudal lord from Kyushu. For almost three centuries, the islands’ kings paid tribute to two masters, the shogun of Japan and the emperor of China.
The arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and his “black ships” in the 1850s rocked Japan, but the new state that emerged from this political turmoil was unified and assertive. In 1879, the young Emperor Meiji, a modernizing reformer, formally absorbed the Ryukyus, which became Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture. China’s Qing Dynasty ratified this action in 1895, but only under duress; the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the First Sino-Japanese War, not only provided that China would abandon any claims to the Ryukyus, but signed away Taiwan and severed China’s longstanding tributary relationship with Korea. (The treaty also helped set the stage for the Senkaku dispute, which turns in part on whether those islets were part of Taiwan, and thus reverted to China after 1945, or the Ryukyus.)
Okinawa was captured by Allied troops in the final months of the Pacific War, but this victory came at such a terrible cost that it may have influenced President Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons rather than mount a ground assault on Japan’s home islands. When the American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, the Treaty of San Francisco provided that Washington would continue to administer the Ryukyus. Okinawa became a key pedestal of American power in Asia, an idea that Commodore Perry had championed a century earlier. The chain reverted to Japanese control in 1972, but the U.S. military continues to maintain a constellation of bases on Okinawa under the terms of Washington’s security alliance with Tokyo.
The Ryukyuan people have a complex relationship with their national government. Many resent the way the islands were used during the Pacific War –in particular, the compulsory mass suicides ordered by Imperial officers during the Allied invasion – and feel that they still bear a disproportionate burden for Japan’s defense. One particular source of controversy is the location of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, today situated in an urban area near Okinawa’s capital. While Washington and Tokyo long ago negotiated a plan to move the base, a combination of local opposition and waffling by Japanese leaders has delayed its implementation.
But none of this knotty history casts any doubt on Japanese sovereignty. The islands’ residents remained citizens of Japan throughout the postwar U.S. administration, and most welcomed the return of Japanese control. In polls, a majority of Okinawans either identify themselves as Japanese or adopt a dual identity, and independence advocates – who, ironically, express solidarity with similar movements in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang – have fared poorly in local elections.
These facts are hardly news to Beijing. The questions that state organs have raised are not part of a disinterested historical inquiry (as the Foreign Ministry asserts), nor do they foreshadow a campaign to claim the chain for China. Rather, they are an attempt to broaden the Senkaku dispute, itself a pointed challenge to Tokyo and the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Indeed, an unsigned editorial in Global Times has already acknowledged as much, describing the issue as a source of “leverage,” to be raised whenever Beijing is displeased with Tokyo. “If Japan, binding itself with the U.S., tries to threaten China’s future,” the hawkish state-run paper warns, Beijing should seek to “impose threats on the country’s integrity” by backing Ryukyuan independence.
Since last week, formal diplomatic protests have ping-ponged between between Tokyo and Beijing. Japan is entitled to its outrage, but its leaders must recognize that an angry response could play into the hands of Beijing’s hawks. Facing two genuine independence movements and tied up in territorial disputes with other neighbors from India to Southeast Asia, China in fact has much to lose from pressing a theory that could embolden “splittists” at home and heighten anxieties abroad. Emphasis on the Ryukyus’ antique tributary relationship with China is particularly incendiary, given that many other Asian nations were similarly tied to the Middle Kingdom at some point in history.
With even Chinese netizens mocking the People’s Daily for overreaching, Japan has nothing to gain from becoming ensnared in a debate over Okinawa. By refusing to be goaded, Tokyo can deny China the leverage it seeks – and watch as Beijing suffers the consequences of its own provocation.
Taylor Washburn is a lawyer studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and was previously a visiting professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @washburnt.