The Ryukus in Play

The British magazine The Economist likes to think of itself as an intellectual powerhouse but every so often under its "authoritative" exterior is found very shallow journalism.

Its latest issue for instance carries no less than three pages on the issues of the Senkaku/Diaoyu rocks and Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands which reads as if written by a Beijing Foreign Ministry official. In effect it not only backs up China's claims to the rocks but to the Ryukyus as well (of which Okinawa is the main) on the basis that they were once a tributary state which shares some cultural traits with China.

Asia Sentinel has noted in the past that the Senkaku/Diaoyu claim is probably just the thin end of a Chinese wedge aimed at the whole string of islands running between Kyushu and Taiwan and centred on Okinawa, site of major US bases. The Economist's falling for Chinese imperial versions of history now gives added credence to this belief, making the Senkakau/Diaoyu group an integral part of the Ryukyus and giving a very lop-sided view of their history.

Kowtowing before the Beijing throne, the anonymous author of this article tells us that before 1894-95 (the Sino-Japanese war) the region was "a world in which status and stability in relations across Asia were regulated through a system of tributary states acknowledging Chinese centrality". Put that in simple language and it means: "Chinese hegemony over non-Chinese is good for all".

Indeed, the Economist is so enthused about the benefits of Sinic dominance that it argues: "Imperial China's tributary relationships are often misrepresented as chiefly a burden on the vassal state" but were a way to bestow "Chinese beneficence."

The article makes much of the Ryukyus' past cultural links to China but makes no mention of the fact that the old Okinawan language is close to Japanese, not Chinese, and that there are also strong Malay cultural influences – not surprising given the proximity of Taiwan (only occupied by Han Chinee over the past 300 years) and Luzon, the main Philippine island. The people were seafarers and traders linking Japan, China and Southeast Asia – a role which pre-dated China's Ming dynasty maritime expansion when the Ryukyus were first required to pay tribute.

Significantly too, the article makes scant mention of the name Ryukyus, the name by which the island chain is known in Japanese, or in Chinese Liuqiu. All references are to Okinawa although that is only the Japanese prefectural name for the group. In its earlier condition of a semi-independent kingdom centred at Naha on Okinawa giving tribute to both Japan and China it was known as the Ryukyus – though the Amani island group to the north and the Sakishima group nearer Taiwan were separate until around the 16th century. (The US detached the Amani group from the Ryukyus in 1952 and they are now part of Kagoshima prefecture, not Okinawa).

For sure it was Japan occupation which ended the Ryukyu kingdom's quasi-independence and subsequent incorporation to Japan. But that was mainly driven by fears that it would be annexed by one of the western powers. Indeed US Commodore Perry, the man whose "black ships" forced Japan to open to foreign trade, recommended that to US Franklin Pierce. Doubtless many in the islands still hanker after independence but there is no realistic choice between being part of Japan – or ending up like a non-Han part of China. Tibet anyone?