BMI View: The Chinese media's questioning of Japan's sovereignty over Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands will increase Sino-Japanese tensions at an already sensitive time. In addition, the move will raise concerns in other Asian countries facing claims to its territory by China, leading to a backlash against Beijing .
During the first week of May 2013, two official Chinese newspapers carried articles by two academics from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) questioning Japan's sovereignty over Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands. The CASS academics noted that the Ryukyu Islands were a vassal state of imperial China before they were annexed by Japan in the 1870s. They added that the "unresolved problem of the Ryukyus has finally arrived at the time for reconsideration". The commentaries were not formally backed by the Chinese government, but the fact that they appeared in state-owned media gives them semi-official standing. While China is not necessarily claiming the Ryukyu Islands, it is at least testing the waters for international reaction, and using the commentaries to raise the psychological pressure on Japan at a time when Beijing is actively disputing Tokyo's claim over the nearby Senkaku (the Japanese name)/Diaoyu (the Chinese name) islands ( see our online service, September 18, 2012, 'Sino-Japanese Island Dispute: Key Questions And Answers').
China's Okinawa 'Claim' Raises Psychological Pressure On Japan
The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands re-emerged in full force in 2012, when the Japanese government purchased three of the five islands from their private Japanese owners in September of that year. The Japanese government, then led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), was in fact trying to reduce tensions with China with the purchase, because it wanted to pre-empt their acquisition by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, whose then governor, Shintaro Ishihara, is one of Japan's leading nationalist politicians. The Japanese government feared that if Ishihara came to control the islands, he would stoke tensions with China.
Nevertheless, the purchase triggered a wave of anti-Japanese protests in China, placing severe strains on bilateral ties. Japan's sense of vulnerability in the face of a rising China and dangerous North Korea contributed to the landslide victory of Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the December 2012 general elections. Abe has maintained a tough stance towards China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, warning in late April 2013 that Japan would use force against Chinese activists or troops if they landed on the islands. Against this backdrop, the Chinese media's commentaries on Okinawa's status are a means of pressuring Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue.
Any Chinese claim on Okinawa and the Ryukyu archipelago would be far more serious than Beijing's challenge to Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The latter group is uninhabited and tiny, whereas the Ryukyu chain has a population of 1.5mn people, and is a popular tourist destination. Furthermore, Okinawa hosts the vast majority of the 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan, and the US military facilities there are a key element of Washington's power projection capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.
China's Territorial Claims Already Backfiring
Japan is not the only country in Asia with which China has a territorial dispute. China's increasingly assertive claims since 2010 to vast tracts of the South China Sea have put it at odds with Vietnam and the Philippines. The South China Sea is considered important for its vast oil and gas reserves, fishing stocks, and shipping lanes. Vietnam in its various forms has been mistrustful of China for centuries, and its dispute with Beijing is one of the reasons why Hanoi has improved relations with Washington over the past decade. The Philippines, too, is becoming more suspicious of Chinese intentions, and like Japan is a treaty ally of the United States. Furthermore, the Philippine government in December 2012 called upon Japan to rearm itself to counterbalance China. The statement was significant, because the Philippines suffered tremendously at Imperial Japan's hands in the 1940s and because Asian countries have generally been suspicious about a revanchist Japan.
Elsewhere in Asia, China has previously hinted that it could have a claim on Korean territory. In the early 2000s, CASS academics purported that the ancient North Asian kingdom of Koguryo (Goguryeo), which covered parts of Northeast China and all of North Korea, was a Chinese entity. This sparked outrage in South Korea, because Koreans regard Koguryo as an integral part of their history. China's political motives in the dispute were unclear, with some speculating that Beijing wanted a pretext to absorb North Korea in the event of the latter's collapse, and others suggesting that China was seeking to pre-empt future Korean claims on Chinese territory. Although the dispute subsequently faded, it could re-emerge in future, especially if the Korean Peninsula is reunified.
China also claims the whole of India's Arunachal Pradesh state in the Himalayas as its own. The state is 84,000 square kilometres in area and has more than one million people living there. Meanwhile, in April 2013, several dozen Chinese troops entered a separate mountainous territory claimed by India, raising protests from New Delhi. Aside from their border dispute in the Himalayas stemming from the Sino-Indian war of 1962, China and India are increasingly competing for influence in the Indian Ocean ( see March 10, 2010, 'Indian Ocean: The Growing Struggle For Dominance').
China's attitude towards Okinawa and the Ryukyu archipelago could even have implications for Russia. Large parts of Russia's Far Eastern Region were acquired from China in treaties in 1858 and 1860 that were imposed upon it. Although China has not pressed claims on Russia, in recent years some Russian nationalist politicians have come to fear that Chinese immigration into Russia's under-populated Siberian territories could eventually prompt Beijing to revive territorial claims.
Perceptions Of China's Grandstanding Could Bolster US And Japan
It is unclear why China has become more assertive of late, but one possible reason is that Xi Jinping, who took over as Communist Party leader last November and as president in March 2013, is seeking to demonstrate his nationalist credentials to an increasingly assertive military establishment. The fact that new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also a strong nationalist means that Japan is an obvious antagonist.
China has officially been using the phrase 'peaceful development' to describe its rising political and economic power, having dropped the phrase 'peaceful rise' a decade ago because the word 'rise' was deemed to sound too threatening. China has generally sought to portray itself as a responsible world power, in contrast to the US, which it sees as waging aggressive wars and interfering in other countries' internal affairs. Nevertheless, Beijing's apparent territorial ambitions have already prompted a backlash in Asia, providing the US with an opportunity to shore up its influence in the region. Indeed, the Myanmar leadership's increasing concerns about becoming a Chinese satellite state was a major reason why it has been pursuing a rapprochement with Washington since 2011.
Going forward, as Asian states become more wary about China's rise, they will develop closer ties with the US, Japan, and one another as counterweights. We do not foresee any formal Asian alliance to contain China, since this would appear as an excessively provocative step. Nevertheless, we envisage greater security cooperation between the US, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, and Australia over the coming decade as part of an unofficial quest to counterbalance China.