Lebensraum and China

China’s noisy revival of its claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands looks to be the thin end of a wedge pointed towards and perhaps even beyond Okinawa, the location of major US military bases. As in its disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, China is using its version of history as well as its naval power to promote claims which once seemed merely theoretical.

As of now, China is not advancing its East China Sea island claims beyond the Senkakus, a collection of uninhabited rocks which are roughly equidistant between the northern tip of Taiwan and Ishigaki island in Japan’s southern Ryukyu islands. But the historical references which it is using to justify its Senkaku claim can be readily applied to at least some of the Ryukyus. That whole 1,000 kilometer long chain of islands was once claimed by China and may be again.

For clear evidence of the Beijing wedge, the China Daily, Beijing’s English-language mouthpiece, on Sept. 14 quoted Ming Dynasty “Records of Imperial Title-Conferring Envoys to the Ryukyus” which includes the following passage about Ryukyans returning home from China: “Then Kume mountain comes into sight, that is where the land of Ryukyu begins.” Comments the paper: “This indicates that the Diaoyu islands belong to China, not Ryukyu”. This may seem an obscure bit of history irrelevant to today’s dispute. But look at the map. Kume island – Kumejima to the Japanese – lies 250 kilometers from the Senkakus but a mere 100 from Okinawa.

Four days later, the Council for National Security Policy Studies, under the China Policy Science Research Council, issued a declaration on Sept. 18 that “The Diaoyus do not belong to the Ryukyus, and the Ryukyus have never belonged to Japan. Japan's stealing of the Ryukyus was conducted without any legal grounds, and is completely illegal. Japan must unconditionally practice international laws as stipulated in the Cairo Declaration, Potsdam Proclamation, and immediately end its armed occupation and colonial rule of the Ryukyus. We firmly support the Ryukyu people's righteous fight for independence and self-rule, for ridding of Japanese colonial governance.”

In other words China appears to be using this bit of history to suggest that what are now regarded as the southern Ryukyus, which lie west of Kumejima, are not part of the Ryukyus, formerly a semi-independent kingdom. By implication they must belong to China.This is a huge step forward from China’s claim to the Senkakus alone, rocks which were of so little value that for years governments took scant notice of them.

China’s asserts that the Senkakus were always under Chinese jurisdiction until the Sino-Japanese treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 when China was forced to cede Taiwan and part of Manchuria to Japan. Those territories were returned to China in 1945 and the Senkakus should have been as well, but the US treated then as part of the Ryukyus which were returned to Japan in 1972. China also claims that the islands lie on its continental shelf and are separated from the Ryukyus by a sea depression whereas Japan contends the shelf only end east of that chain where the sea bed plunges to the great depths of the Pacific. China’s case on the Senkakus is quite strong but does not in itself explain why the islands have become such a focus for Beijing.

Even making the big assumption that there are significant hydrocarbon resources in the vicinity, these rocks in themselves barely justify the nationalist emotion being raised on both sides and the threat to serious and lasting disruption of relations between the leading east Asian nations. For sure, the issues may be useful in domestic political struggles and diverting attention from economic discontents. But a bigger, longer term agenda is also at work as China seeks to become the regional power reversing the wrongs supposedly done to it in the past 200 years and resuming its status as the nation to which others paid tribute.

It links to another bit of history which may be coming back to haunt the US as well as China and Japan.. In 1873 Japan, fearful more of western than Chinese power, ended the Ryukyus’ semi-independence and incorporated them into Japan. China, which like Japan had regarded the Ryukyu kingdom as a tributary state, objected and appealed to former US President Grant to mediate.

Grant concluded that most of the islands were rightly Japanese, not Chinese but suggested that the southernmost ones closest to Taiwan could become Chinese. Beijing rejected this and its claim to the Ryukyus, though never formally abandoned, went into abeyance. But for how much longer? The Ryukyus had always been closer to Japan than China by language and culture and now they are largely integrated into Japan – opposition to US bases notwithstanding.

But China seldom forgets past “tributary” status, even if tribute was in practice just a tax to allow foreigners to trade with China. For many years the islands did more trade with China than Japan, and absorbed Chinese as well as Malay cultural influences. So while Beijing has given no hints of reviving its claim to all the Ryukyus its history references clearly suggest “the Ryukyus begin at Kumejima” not at Ishigaki or Yonaguni , the Japanese-inhabited islands closest to Diaoyu and Taiwan.