On March 16, an editorial appeared in the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily challenging Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands. Universally accepted as Japanese territory, a news outlet so closely affiliated with the Communist Party of China (CCP) publicly questioning Japanese ownership is a worrying development in the ongoing Diaoyu-Senkaku island dispute. Though the article has been dismissed as “scholarly musings” by senior military officials, their publication in one of the CCP’s chief propaganda organs provides reason to believe that some in Beijing may be taking this idea seriously.
Between a rock and a hard place
An island chain stretching from Japan’s southern coast to northern Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands have a long history of balancing relations between China and Japan. The Ryukyu Kingdom existed as an independent state from 1429 until 1609, when an invasion by the Satsuma domain in Japan reduced it to vassalage status. The Kingdom found itself in the awkward position of paying tribute both to Japan and China. The Ryukyu Kingdom remained a vassal state until 1879, when Japan, in the throes of modernizing during the Meiji restoration, formally annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom as Okinawa Prefecture.
The islands were largely ignored by administrators in Tokyo until the Second World War. The ferocious battle of Okinawa in 1945 is thought to have killed between one tenth and one third of the entire Okinawan population. Many of these deaths were forced suicides directed by the Imperial Japanese Army. These wartime experiences have led some, like the recently-formed Ryukyu Independence Comprehensive Research Society, to compare Okinawa to former Japanese colonies like Korea and Taiwan. On this shared legacy of colonialism, it is argued, that Okinawa and the Ryukyus are just as deserving of independence.
The Ryukyus remained under American administration until 1972, when control was reverted back to Tokyo. Tens of thousands of American military personnel (U.S. Forces Japan) continue to be stationed in Okinawa. Though as a whole, Japanese are strong supporters of the U.S.-Japan strategic alliance, Okinawans feel that they shoulder this burden much more than any other region of the country. A number of high-profile incidents between American personnel and Okinawans – fights, rapes, and murder – have further inflamed local perceptions of the American military.
As absurd as encouraging Ryukyuan independence may seem, doing so could serve a dual purpose: rolling back American power in the Pacific and weakening Japanese claims to the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
Competition between China and the U.S. for influence in the Pacific has increased dramatically in the past few years as Washington continues its slow pivot to Asia. Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, is home to 74% of all U.S. military bases in Japan and the vast majority of American forces in the Pacific. The island is, for all intents and purposes, the central lynchpin of American power in the region. Supplanting American dominance in the Pacific has emerged as a central pillar of Chinese foreign policy, and promoting an independent Ryukyu state would help this tremendously. If ever the Ryukyus were to become independent, Beijing could wield the extreme unpopularity of U.S. military bases in Okinawa to neutralize a key threat to regional supremacy.
The ever-present Diaoyu/Senkaku island spat would further be served by a Ryukyuan independence movement. The disputed islands are administered by Okinawa Prefecture, and a sovereign Ryukyu state would be pliable to Chinese demands. In Beijing’s eyes, Okinawa and the Ryukyus may seem to be fertile ground for stoking nationalist sentiment. The indigenous inhabitants, as with other ethnic minorities in Japan (Zainichi Koreans and the Ainu people) Okinawans have felt sidelined by mainstream Japanese society. It should be noted that modern Okinawans are much more thoroughly integrated than are other minorities, due in part to the close ethnic and linguistic relationship to the Japanese. Framing Japanese ownership of the islands as a colonial enterprise needing correction could go a long way in reshaping the perceptions held by Okinawans towards the Japanese home islands.
Implications and Prospects
However, fomenting an independence movement in Japan is an especially risky play by China, for a number of reasons. A rarity in the game of Asian territorial disputes, the Ryukyus are universally accepted as Japanese territory. Even among Okinawans, independence occupies a low level of support – a poll conducted in 2005 showed 58.7% of Okinawans opposed to the idea of independence. Compared with other sovereignty movements pointed to as precedents (Scotland and Catalonia), this is quite a low number.
An editorial in the Global Times on 10 May claims that while China is not claiming the islands as their own, they are able to “negate the islets’ current status” through the foundation of “research organizations.” It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Chinese efforts to promote “dialogue” on Ryukyuan independence would be taken seriously. The CCP-approved scholars who published the initial editorial in March have laughably claimed that their research was conducted independent of current tensions between China and Japan. Instead, it is claimed, their proposal is based on the historical Ryukyu Kingdom’s status as a Chinese vassal during the 16th century. If Beijing was committed to promoting independence on the basis of historical vassalage, then certainly it would have no problem doing so with the former Chinese vassals that are now constituent territories of the PRC (Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, to name a few).
Chinese policy vis-à-vis international secessionist movements has long been one of non-interference, largely from fear of reigniting the numerous independence movements within China itself. Fostering a largely-moribund Ryukyuan nationalism in an attempt to subvert Japanese claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands may seem a tantalizing prospect in the short-term, but it could easily backfire on Beijing, should it be bold enough to pursue it. China has spent more than 60 years smoothing over the many ethnic fault-lines across the country, which could easily rupture again.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Security Summit in Singapore in June, Deputy Chief of General Staff for the People’s Liberation Army Qi Jiangguo dismissed rumours of Beijing’s designs on the Ryukyus. In the short-term, this will help ease Tokyo’s fears of an imminent Chinese soft-power offensive in Okinawa. Given the direct association of the People’s Daily with the CCP however, it would seem that not all in Beijing share General Qi’s view. The supremely opaque nature of the Chinese military establishment still leaves many questions unanswered.
An organic, locally-established independence movement in the Ryukyu Islands should merit genuine consideration. However, one largely established and prodded along by Beijing, for the express purpose of advancing long-term regional objectives, should be viewed with suspicion. Though it is unlikely that the newly-inaugurated fifth generation of Chinese leadership will be pursuing such plans any time soon, increasing tensions with Japan may lead Beijing to one day deem Ryukyuan independence as a geostrategic imperative.