The Global Times, the newspaper run by China’s Communist Party, ran an editorial this month suggesting that Beijing challenge Japan’s control of Okinawa, part of the Ryukyu island chain.
Why would China want to start a fight over Okinawa? At the moment, China, Taiwan, and Japan are engaged in a particularly nasty sovereignty dispute in the East China Sea over five islands and three barren rocks called the Senkakus by the Japanese and the Diaoyus by the other claimants. The disputed chain is north of the southern end of the Ryukyus and about midway between Taiwan and Okinawa.
The Senkakus are administered by Japan, which appears to have a stronger legal claim to the chain than the other two nations. The United States, which takes no position on the sovereignty issue, returned the islands to Tokyo at the same time it gave back Okinawa in 1972. The People’s Republic of China made no formal claim to the Senkakus until 1971. Until then, Chinese maps showed the islands as Japan’s.
Beijing claims the Senkakus were part of China since Ming dynasty times, at least since the 16th century. Therefore, Japan’s occupation of the chain is, in Chinese eyes, a historical injustice. “For every step that Japan takes forward, we will take one step and a half and even two steps to make Japan realize its provocation will bring serious consequences,” the Global Times editorialized, as it suggested Beijing go after Okinawa as a means of bolstering its Senkaku claim.
“China should not be afraid of engaging with Japan in a mutual undermining of territorial integrity,” the Global Times also stated. That, unfortunately, is a recipe for disaster. “Using the Ryukyu sovereignty issue to resolve the Diaoyu dispute would destroy the basis of China-Japan relations,” Zhou Yongsheng of China Foreign Affairs University told the Financial Times. “If this was considered, it would basically be the prelude to military action.”
And not just in the East China Sea. China’s claim to Okinawa, if raised, would partially rest on the fact Ryukyu’s kings paid tribute to China even after the Japanese conquered the islands in 1609. “Once you start arguing that a tributary relationship at some point in history is the basis for a sovereignty claim in the 20th century, you start worrying a lot of people,” notes the renowned June Teufel Dreyer, of the University of Miami. “Many, many countries had tributary relationships with China.” Moreover, many Chinese believe they have, based on history, the right to take, among other things, Mongolia and the Russian Far East.
So where will China’s expansionism end? Some feeble American analysts want to abandon Taiwan because they believe that will soothe relations with Beijing. That’s hardly a good tactic to use against an aggressive power looking to expand, and it undoubtedly will not work with the People’s Republic. Beijing’s defenders often complain of comparisons of China with other regimes, but we are seeing in that country a dynamic exhibited in the most dangerous states, a growing desire for territory controlled by others.