While the Western media has at times taken great delight in publishing somewhat fantastical stories about the influence that Japanese ‘nationalists’ hold over the contemporary Japanese imagination, China’s own home grown group with questionable interpretations of history for the most part seemed to escape the attention of analysts and journalists – until recently. Part of this is due to a lack of sophistication in analysis of China- it was assumed for a long period of time that non-democratic CCP China was a homogeneous entity with homogeneous IR and domestic policy preferences, and deviations from the official line were mere lapses of discipline. We have however thankfully seen more focus on contending and diverse political elements as China’s importance increases. Some of this has been to emphasize the ‘reformist’ elements in the CCP, which of course do exist to some degree. Others have focused on the more hardline elements rising through the system. The Financial Times for example has just published an interesting piece on how some actors in the Chinese political system see questioning the legitimacy of Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa (Ryukyu) as justified. For example:

Major General Jin Yinan, head of the strategy research institute at China’s National Defense University…told state radio that limiting discussion to the Diaoyu was “too narrow”, saying Beijing should question ownership of the whole Ryukyu archipelago – which by some definitions extends beyond Okinawa.


Tang Chunfeng, a former official at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo, is one of those campaigning for China to rethink its acceptance of Japanese rule over Okinawa, saying past restraint has “done a lot of harm”.

“When I was in Japan, I didn’t even know that the Ryukyus were once ours,” says Mr Tang, now a Japan specialist at a commerce ministry think-tank.

It was not hard prior to this to find similar claims making the rounds, but what is new about recent expressions is that similar sentiment was echoed in the Global Times which operates under the auspices of the People’s Daily.  The editorial argued that “China should not be afraid of engaging with Japan in a mutual undermining of territorial integrity.” Given that the Chinese government has not openly nixed the very controversial idea/strategy, and may have even ‘suggested’ that the paper to print this, is it not reasonable to assume China may be eyeing Okinawa long-term?

There is of course a need for caution in interpreting the salience of such sentiment in China. The Global Times, like a lot of other Chinese media (including government-owned media), have profit as their primary day to day operating motive and populism and controversy obviously sell. To the degree such papers operate as government mouthpieces really depend on the political context of the stories they are writing and political sensitivities of the particular time. Given that a couple of crucial events are coming up prior to the leadership transition in November in China such stories may be permitted in order to appease certain domestic constituents, or more likely may prove to be useful distractions.

However there is some cause for concern and if such sentiment does not prove to be a transient phenomenon then conflict may not be out of the question. Increasingly recent surveys have suggested that even the Chinese public is more open to the use of military tools to resolve regional tensions and conflicts (日), in this particular case the Senkaku Islands dispute. It is increasing common to see internet rhetoric not seemingly initiated by the CCP’s ‘publicity department’ (中共中央宣传部) in regards to the seemingly ‘churlish’ behaviour of countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam in regards to contesting territorial claims with the PRC.

Underpinning such sentiments would seem to be an increasing misunderstanding (purposeful or otherwise) of China’s own history. We can see this in Tang Chungfeng’s statement below about how the Ryukyus were “ours.” It was certainly the case that the Ryukyus paid tribute to the Ming and then Qing courts. However the payment of tribute was never intended to be a specific concession of sovereignty, and there was deliberate cognitive dissonance on both sides in regards to the symbolic meaning of tributary relations. For nations paying tribute this was more about gaining profitable access to commercial trade with China that would not otherwise be granted (as well as tribute goodies often exceeding what they themselves had given to the Chinese emperor), than recognition of cultural and/or political superiority. This is why the Shimazu clan from Satsuma-han, and by extension the Tokugawa government who gave them a special dispensation to ‘conduct foreign relations’ outside of the shogunal system, found control over Okinawa so tempting.

Contrary to whimsical narratives about Japan being a fully isolated nation during the Tokugawa era, the Tokugawa actually implemented a reasonably sophisticated foreign policy. In short it was focused around a number of “strategic buffers” in the form of Matsumae, Tsushima (and by extension Korea where Japan had established relations of “equality” through being recognized as the ‘Taikun’), Nagasaki/Dejima, and the Ryukyu islands. These buffers would serve to make foreign relations and cultural interactions more manageable (see: Christian influence, Japan), allow for the collection of intelligence about the outside world, and most crucially allow Japan to gain access to East Asian commercial trade without having to engage directly with the East Asian mainland or kowtow to the Chinese emperor. It was also extremely useful for the collection of customs duties and taxes, and preventing local lords from amassing wealth that could challenge the status quo (similar motivations lead to the implementation of the alternate residence or Sankin Koutai system). To a degree this system was based on a similar over-imaginative and vain “fiction” of its own – one of a Japan-centred international order – but in practical terms it was quite successful.

Given the frequent political interactions between the Ryukyu Kingdom and the Chinese, and the passage of trade and access to Chinese goods etc, it was a strategic imperative for Japan to gain influence over the Ryukyu Kingdom. Once effective control over the Ryukyu court was established by the Shimazu clan, and its ‘advisors’ were established on the islands, a somewhat farcical situation arose where Ryukyu officials and elites would clear away any telltale Japanese influence before return missions from the Chinese court arrived every few years in order to keep alive the fiction of Ryukyu being subordinate to China and not in effect Satsuma-han. This endured until Japan’s official annexation of Okinawa in 1879 took place.

Another problem with using the history of the tribute system as a justification for modern actions is that you will run into all sorts of  ’interpretive issues’ regarding consistency of application. For example, the Ryukyu Kingdom was only required to send tribute every two years or so from the start of the Ming Dynasty. This was much less frequent than Korea (varied annually to quarterly), and only slightly more regular than Vietnam (Annam) and Thailand (Siam) in the 18th and 19th centuries. Where does one draw the line in terms of tribute indicating sovereign control? If the Ryukyus are Chinese, what about Korea? Vietnam or Thailand?

This is of course to say nothing of the fact that the peoples inside the PRC of Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia and ‘Manchuria’ had enjoyed intermittent periods of independent equality, dominance by, dominance over, and peaceful tribute relations vis-a-vis the Celestial Kingdom throughout history. If the Ryukyus should be independent (as some Chinese have argued according to the Financial Times article), why not Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, or of course, Taiwan? The can of worms that would be opened, both in terms of historical connotations, as well as in terms of radicalization of Sino-Japanese sentiments, really would not seem to be worth it for the CCP.

We also got a very interesting reminder this week of just how historical claims for sovereign territory can also backfire. The Chinese claim on the Senkaku Islands essentially revolves around a deep historical one – that the Chinese were aware of, and utilized for navigation and for fishing, the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands throughout the imperial period. According to this narrative the Chinese only effective ceded sovereignty over them when Japan extracted Taiwan from the Qing’s grasp in 1895 through a war of aggression. The Japanese counter that the Senkakus were discovered as uninhabited islands and incorporated as part of Okinawa (now formally Japanese) as such in 1895 6 months prior to the settlement of the first Sino-Japanese war and ultimately had little to do with direct imperialism. The Japanese point to a history of effective use and effective control since. However the Sankei Shimbun this week reports on evidence (日), discovered by Chinese literature researcher Ishii Nozomu (日), that in 1561 the Ming Dynasty actually recognized the Senkaku Islands as being administratively part of the Ryukyu Kingdom. If the Senkakus are Okinawan and not Taiwanese then perhaps widening the claim to Okinawa may well be the only choice if the Senkakus are to be ‘returned’ to China.

Or perhaps the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands can be jointly administered – by an independent Taiwan and independent Okinawa. Because the historical record gives as much credence to that state of affairs as any other.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 256 post(s) on Japan Security Watch