The sovereignty debate over the Ryukyu Islands has heated up in China lately. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) newspaper the People’s Daily recently ran an explosive report that questioned Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands.
The article said that the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkakus in Japan, were not the only islands that should be returned to China, because “we have now reached a point in time when we should revisit the historically unresolved issue of the Ryukyus.”
The article stirred up a lot of sentiment and immediately set off a heated debate in the Chinese media, generating comments such as “the Ryukyus are not Japanese” and “China also has sovereignty over the Ryukyus” as Beijing engaged with Tokyo over the “Ryukyu issue” for the first time.
Coincidentally, an independence research society was founded in the Ryukyus just a week later, setting off intense debate about support for the Ryukyuan “independence movement” in China.
The fact is that as the conflict over the Diaoyutais has heated up in recent years, the Ryukyu issue has been brought up on several occasions in China. On Sept. 15 last year, China Central Television aired a program called The Ryukyus Aren’t Japanese Either. However, because this article was published by the People’s Daily, it attracted the attention of outside observers who interpreted is as a signal from the Chinese government. During a recent visit to Beijing, I had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the article’s author and learned that the background to its publication was quite complex.
There is no doubt that the Diaoyutais sovereignty dispute lies behind the reappearance of the Ryukyus issue. The Japanese are connecting the Diaoyutais to the Ryukyus — which in practice means Okinawa Prefecture — and recently, NHK and other Japanese media outlets have begun to consistently use the expression “the Senkakus in Okinawa Prefecture” in their reporting. This is the main reason why Beijing has allowed the Ryukyus issue to reappear. The basic logic is that if the Ryukyus are not Japanese, then neither are the Diaoyutais.
However, a look at the Chinese debate about the Ryukyus and support for Ryukyuan independence reveals several blind spots and misunderstandings. This is a reflection of China’s ignorance and wishful thinking about the situation in the Ryukyus.
One of the blind spots is the mistaken belief that Beijing has not recognized the return of the Ryukyus to Japan.
In the 1950s, China expressed support for “the Okinawan people’s struggle against US imperialism,” as well as their “demand to be returned to Japan.”
The embryo of Beijing’s stance on the Ryukyus could be seen in the People’s Daily on Aug. 15, 1951, in a statement by then-Chinese minister of foreign affairs Zhou Enlai (周恩來) addressing the draft US and UK peace agreement with Japan and the San Francisco conference.
In his arguments for opposing the draft, Zhou wrote: “The Ryukyu Islands, the Ogasawara Islands, the Volcano Islands, Nishinoshima Island and the Okinotori Islands … have never been ceded from Japan in any past international agreement.”
Not once since the 1972 normalization of relations between Japan and China has Beijing expressed a differing opinion to Japan regarding Ryukyu sovereignty.
Second, the main purpose of the debate in the People’s Daily and other Chinese media outlets and by netizens is to find new ways to think about and resolve the Diaoyutais dispute. However, due to the cost of breaking the estoppel rule — a legal bar to alleging or denying a fact because of one’s own previous actions or words to the contrary — and its fears of a domino effect that would lead to renegotiations about the status of Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing does not dare to go along with this trend and unambiguously declare a change in its position on Ryukyu sovereignty.