China’s outburst of nationalism over the group of Japanese-administered rocks known as the Senkaku islands—or Diaoyu in Chinese—is not just another worrisome indication of the frictions in East Asia which have stemmed from China’s rise.
They could prove the tip of a much bigger island iceberg, the whole Ryukyu chain centered on Okinawa and extending 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from the Senkakus to the tip of Kyushu.
China’s excuse for stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment and sending warships to the area is that the Japanese government has changed the status quo by buying the islands from their former private Japanese owners.
For years Japan has acted cautiously by not allowing any development of the islands which once (until 1940) hosted a fish processing plant, but its government decided to act to forestall plans by Tokyo’s nationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara for the city to buy and develop them.
So, although nothing has really changed in respect of islands under Japanese control since at least 1895—other than the period of U.S. occupation—the purchase has proved a suitable occasion for China to remind Japan and the world of the extent of China’s claims to the islands in the East and South China Seas.
Nationalist flag-waving over the Senkakus, as recently over claims to the Scarborough shoal off the Philippines coast, may also have been prompted by internal power struggles with the ruling Chinese Communist Party prior to its decade leadership change, and in response to renewed U.S. attention to the seas and its relations with countries facing Chinese claims, notably Vietnam and the Philippines.
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou has also felt it necessary to join the Chinese nationalistic chorus with its own claims not just to the Senkakus but to South China Sea islands. That may impress Beijing but will not win it friends in the neighborhood or Washington.
It is usually explained that the barren rocks known as the Senkakus are important because of possible oil and gas potential in the surrounding waters. However, there is a much bigger issue potentially at stake depending on interpretations of history.
As far as Japan is concerned, the Senkakus are part of the Ryukyu chain and were viewed as such by the U.S. when it returned them to Japan in 1972.
China claims that they were Chinese territory which only came into Japanese hands as a result of the so-called “unequal” Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 which ceded Taiwan and part of Manchuria to Japan and was subsequently deemed invalid.
No easy answers
Geography does not provide any easy answers to the rival claims. The nearest uninhabited land is a Taiwan-controlled rock, the nearest inhabited land is Japan’s Ishigaki island in the southern Ryukyus.
China claims that the Senkakus are on its continental shelf which is separated from the Ryukyus by a seabed depression. Japan asserts that the continental shelf extends to the edge of the very deep waters of the Pacific east of the Ryukyus.
China has yet to link its Senkaku claim to the Ryukyus, but it is entirely possible that the current banging of the nationalist drum is prelude to a much bigger historical claim with monumental strategic implications, not least for the U.S.
China had its own claim to sovereignty over all the Ryukyus which it only appeared to abandon subsequent to its cession of Taiwan. Indeed, the U.S. was to treat the islands as a separate entity, not returning them to Japan till 20 years after the end of its occupation and maintaining its main island, Okinawa, as a crucial military base.
Although the people of the Ryukyus and their languages were similar to those in the main Japanese islands, they had quite a different history thanks to their geography, their long role as small trading states, and the accretion of Malay, Chinese, and Korean influences which resulted from those links.
Once divided, they became a single kingdom which was simultaneously in a tributary relationship with both Japan and China. Tribute was the price of being able to trade, and for a long time the Ryukyus did more trade with China than Japan.
In 1853, the king of the Ryukyus was prevailed upon to sign a treaty with the U.S. following a visit by Commodore Mathew Perry and his fleet.
Perry even wanted to annex the kingdom but President Pierce declined.
Eventually, fearing Western designs in the region, Japan formally annexed the kingdom in 1879 and ended tribute to China. In a last-ditch effort to protect its interests, China invited former U.S. President Grant to act as a mediator with Japan.
However, Beijing rejected a proposal that Japan would keep the northern islands including Okinawa, while some of the southern ones closest to Taiwan would be acknowledged to be Chinese.
Since then, all the islands have become integrated into Japan as Okinawa prefecture—though Okinawa remains a reluctant host of the U.S. bases.
But as China has shown with its resurrection of claims based on past tributary relationships and voyages by Chinese sailors, history can be used to meet the political and strategic demands of the day. China’s goal in the region is to upset the status quo.
Philip Bowring, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a freelance columnist based in Hong Kong. He is a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune.