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.
It is to avoid this difficult dilemma that an embarrassed Beijing is forced to state that its position has not changed and that there is no sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over Okinawa.
In other words, the People’s Daily article, which espouses a view on a sensitive diplomatic issue that is at odds with the government’s position, was rashly published without being backed up by careful study, and this forced the government to make its position clear. This has now circumscribed its ability to deal with and control the Ryukyus issue, since without Beijing’s official endorsement, revisiting the Ryukyus issue will of course not make Japan compromise on the Diaoyutais issue.
The third blind spot is the mistaken interpretation that the Ryukyuan population is anti-Japanese and pro-Chinese and would welcome a Chinese reconsideration of its position on the Ryukyus issue. I have taught at a Ryukyuan university and I have spent several years studying Ryukyuan identity structure, experiencing the local population’s complex emotions toward Japan and China.
In the past, China and the Ryukyus were very close, and Chinese culture became an integral part of Ryukyuan culture, an influence that remains to this day. However, the Ryukyuans’ feeling of proximity to China is historic and cultural, rather than realistic and pragmatic. The fact is that the local population has not had any positive feelings toward China in recent years.
The day after the publication of the People’s Daily article, the Okinawan government announced an opinion poll showing that almost 90 percent of respondents had a negative impression of China, while more than 70 percent had a positive view of Taiwan.
The Ryukyus used to be a semi-independent kingdom that paid tribute to first China and then also to Japan. Following Japan’s Meiji Restoration, the Ryukyus were annexed in 1879 and their name was changed to Okinawa Prefecture. Qing Dynasty China initiated negotiations with Japan, but in the end, these talks came to naught, and the issue was said to be “unresolved.” After World War II, the islands were administered by the US, and the Treaty of Peace with Japan — also known as the San Francisco Peace Treaty — that came into effect in 1952 implicitly recognized Japan’s sovereignty over the Ryukyus. In 1972, the US transferred the administration of both the Ryukyus and the Diaoyutais to Japan.
Based on the historical relationship between China and the Ryukyus, as well as the spirit of the Cairo and Potsdam declarations, according to which talks between China, the US and the UK are required to make such decisions, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested the US’ arbitrary decision to “return” the Ryukyus to Japan without first obtaining the Republic of China’s (ROC) approval. This remains the government’s position to this day, and it still refuses to use the name “Okinawa,” which is a very different position from China’s recognition of the return of the Ryukyus to Japan.
The legitimacy of Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyus and the international community’s arrangements for the status of the Ryukyu Islands during and after World War II is a matter of modern East Asian history. This has always been a matter of interest to academia in Taiwan, and there are indeed many similarities between the Diaoyutais sovereignty issue and the Ryukyus.
The ROC’s post-war position on the status of the Ryukyus has been consistent, the Ryukyuan view of Taiwan has been relatively positive and, in addition, there are no official diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Japan; this means that the Taiwanese government will not be embarrassed even if the current debate about the Ryukyus spreads to Taiwan. However, as we discuss the issue, we should take note of the blind spots in the Chinese debate that, among other things, is making the Chinese ignore Ryukyuan public opinion.
John Lim is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Perry Svensson