Does China Also Have a Territorial Claim to Okinawa? Not Really, But It is a Good Way to Freak Out Japan
An article in China’s leading state-run paper, the People’s Daily, suggesting that the time may be ripe to reopen the question of Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa has already sparked sharp reactions. The WSJ’s blog on China picked up the story, as did this Business Insider post, headlined: “China Now Says It May Own Okinawa, Too.” Other even more lurid headlines: “China Demands Japan Cede Sovereignty Over U.S. Military Base Okinawa.” have popped up all over the internet. As there is a massive U.S. military presence on Okinawa, this issue will likely draw more attention here in the States. The idea had already been mooted last July, as this article notes. The Chinese foreign ministry has already been asked about this, and failed to clarify matters much, leading to more heated reactions in Japan.
I think all of this might be a bit of an overreaction (perhaps an overreaction that the Chinese actually were hoping for).
The argument about Okinawa was raised as part of the larger argument about the sovereignty over the much disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Okinawa, also known as the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, was historically treated as a vassal kingdom by both China and Japan. Its status, like that of the nearby Diaoyu Islands, was never entirely settled during much of the nineteenth century.
The Okinawa discussion was part of the article’s attempt to rebut the Japanese claim that the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands were historically part of the Okinawa/Ryukyu kingdom, and since Okinawa is now part of Japan, the Diaoyu/Senkaku are as well. The article’s position is that the Diaoyu/Senkakus were always considered part of Taiwan, and hence part of China.
To fully push back on the Okinawa point, the article raises questions about the Japanese claim to Okinawa. This is not exactly new, since Okinawan independence activists have raised the same arguments. I think Okinawa is today similar to Puerto Rico, and it is largely a self-determination question rather than a historical title question.
But what makes everyone nervous, however, is the idea that Okinawa’s previous status as a vassal state to the Chinese Empire gives China some sovereignty claims to Okinawa as well. This idea is deeply troubling, since at various times Korea, Vietnam, and other states have arguably had that relationship with China. It has little basis in contemporary international law, as far as I can tell. So I think this idea needs to be firmly rejected, and I have little doubt that countries like Korea, Vietnam, etc. are going reject it.
But the article is not really focused on establishing the vassal state theory of sovereignty (Now that would be quite an article). Most of the article is about the Diaoyu/Senkakus. The Okinawa argument is only meant to further weaken Japan’s arguments for sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkakus. If Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa is uncertain or at least less than perfect, than its claim to the Diaoyu/Senkakus is weakened as well. But the article doesn’t flesh out, nor does it need to, actually establish China’s own claim to Okinawa in order to question Japan’s claim.
I don’t think the Chinese government will be making any moves on Okinawa any time soon. But it is useful for the Chinese to float such ideas, so that they can gracefully back down and “settle” for the Diaoyu/Senkakus one day. A dangerous game to play, unfortunately, and one that may backfire if it continues to foster anti-Chinese Japanese nationalism.