China refused to confirm that Okinawa belongs to Japan after two Chinese scholars suggested re-examining the ownership of the archipelago that includes the island, adding to tensions over a separate territorial dispute.
Agreements between allied forces during World War II mean the ownership of the Ryukyu Islands may be in question, the researchers said in a commentary in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main newspaper. Asked if China considers Okinawa part of Japan, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said scholars have long studied the history of the Ryukyus and Okinawa.
“It may be time to revisit the unresolved historical issue of the Ryukyu Islands,” Zhang Haipeng and Li Guoqiang of the China Academy of Social Sciences wrote in the commentary.
A move to reconsider ownership of the Ryukyus would add to strains as China and Japan assert their claims over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The Japanese government’s decision last year to purchase those islands, called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, sparked protests across China and harmed a $340 billion annual trade relationship that has yet to recover.
Tensions were compounded last month after Japanese lawmakers visited a Tokyo shrine where war criminals are honored along with other war dead and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to protect the East China Sea islands by force. The Ryukyu Islands are home to about 1.5 million people.
“The fact that this view is carried by the People’s Daily signals that Beijing may be upping the ante,” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote in an e-mail. “This is psychological warfare and a classic Chinese negotiation tactic -- trying to intimidate the opponent by raising the stakes.”
Okinawa, the largest island in the Ryukyu chain, hosts U.S. military installations including Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. The scholars’ comments came in an article about China’s claim to the Diaoyu Islands.
In comments to the Japanese parliament today, Abe said leaders must have a cautious discussion about whether it’s right that Japan, whose army is limited to defensive action, should always have to ask the U.S. to “attack someone who is threatening to attack us,” as it does now. He said Japan should debate whether it should create a force like the U.S. Marines.
The Ryukyus unquestionably belong to Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today in Tokyo. The northernmost part of the archipelago sits 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from Japan’s Kyushu Island.
Speaking at a briefing in Beijing today, Hua said scholars have “long paid attention to the history of the Ryukyus and Okinawa.” Asked a second time whether China considers Okinawa part of Japan, she repeated the statement.
China’s imports from Japan plunged 14 percent in the month following the September protests over the East China Sea islands, according to Chinese customs figures.
The People’s Daily article referred to the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed after China was defeated by Japan in a war. The agreement ceded Taiwan and parts of the Liaodong peninsula to Japan, and China paid a fine and renounced Korea’s tributary status to China. The scholars argued that the treaty was nullified with Japan’s defeat in World War II, and that this called into question Japan’s claim to the Ryukyus.
It isn’t the first time Chinese commentators have questioned Japan’s claim over the Ryukyus. Last July, an article in the Global Times, a newspaper owned by the People’s Daily, noted their former tribute status in China’s imperial period. In the nineteenth century, the Ryukyu Kingdom paid tribute to China and Japan before being annexed by Japan in 1879.
The scholars writing today aren’t necessarily saying that the Ryukyus belong to China, according to Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China’s territorial claims. They are raising the possibility that Japan’s ownership could be disputed because the tribute history, he said.
“These are perhaps the most serious scholars to date to make this insinuation,” Fravel said.
— With assistance by Michael Forsythe