Do the Chinese Now Claim the Ryukyus?

A few weeks ago Asia Sentinel pointed out that China’s newfound focus on its longstanding claim to the disputed Senkaku/Dioayu rocks were the thin end of a wedge aimed at a much bigger if dormant claim – to Japan’s Ryukyu islands, which include Okinawa and stretch 1,000 kilometers along the divide between the east China sea and the Pacific Ocean.

Now the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post has, perhaps unwittingly, become identified with this claim. It devotes a whole page of its Dec. 4 edition to explaining to its readers why China regards the barren, uninhabited rocks as of such major importance to China.

It is no coincidence that a primary source for the story is Major General Luo Yuan, a PLA strategist who says that China’s “security and development” are at stake. For sure it helps drum up nationalist support by claiming that that economic potential is vastly greater than is actually the case.

The story accompanies this attempt with a map which appears to show China’s claims extending over the Ryukyu Islands up to the trench which divides them from the deep Pacific. Yet nowhere in the article is there any mention of the Ryukyus, their place on the map being taken up by blobs representing supposed oil and gas fields.

The whole tenor of the article, by the SCMP’s Beijing correspondent Cary Huang, is that the Senkakus are the key to ownership of a vast area that is immensely rich not just in oil and gas and fish but cobalt and manganese nodules. According to the report, “The oil and natural gas reserves of the East China Sea will be enough to meet China’s needs for at least 80 years.” There was also “enough manganese in the waters near the Diaoyus to meet Japan’s needs for 320 years, enough cobalt for 1,300 years, enough nickel for 100 years and enough natural gas for 100 years not to mention other mineral resources and plentiful fish.”

The reporter did not stop to ask why if the East China sea is so rich why neither China nor Japan have done almost nothing to exploit the mineral resources which supposedly lie in the those parts of the sea (by far the majority) which are not in dispute. It is not as though the sea is especially deep or otherwise difficult to explore. Nowhere west of the Okinawa depression is it more than 200 feet deep. As for fish, the reporter is apparently unaware of just how depleted fish stocks are already and cry out for conservation measures.

The importance attached to manganese and nickel nodules is also a bit of nonsense. Sure these exist in this as in various other sea beds. But the cost of extraction is huge compared with land based sources. These are not rare elements on the earth’s surface and China is already the world’s largest producer of manganese. So why make exaggerated for the Senkaku/Diaoyu?

The geographical importance of the Senkaku/Diaoyus is also vastly exaggerated by the article. The fact that the rocks are currently under Japanese control does not in itself validate the whole Japanese seabed claim which rests on a different definition of the continental shelf than that advanced by China. The Senkaku/Diaoyu lie on the continental shelf by any definition but that does not imply the validity of Japan’s seabed claim. These rocks have long been uninhabited so they have scant claim to their own 200-miles EEZ.

If the various claims were put to the International Court in The Hague (where Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have allowed such conflicts to be settled) it is quite possible that Japan’s claim to the Senkakus would be supported on historical grounds while China’s definition of the continental shelf would be recognized over that of Japan.

But China resists any form of international arbitration on its sea disputes, either with Japan or with the littoral states of the South China sea despite its strong case in respect of the East China sea continental shelf. Indeed, by keeping these issues alive it can leave the issue of the Ryukyus quietly on the table. These islands were once an independent tributary of both China and Japan. So vaguely drawn maps such as that in the South China Morning Post and imaginative stories of seabed riches enable China to use the Senkaku/Diaoyu rocks to broaden the international issue and incite nationalist fervor.