Chinese nationalists covet Ryukyu Islands
Beijing may be stoking extremists' claim for leverage in Senkaku row
By KELLY OLSEN
BEIJING — In a glass case at Beijing's Imperial College, an 18th-century book with a yellowed title page in bold, black characters is evidence — some Chinese say — that a swath of modern-day Japan belongs to China.
The two Asian superpowers are already at loggerheads over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, even stoking fears of armed conflict.
But the most aggressive Chinese nationalists, tacitly encouraged by authorities, argue far more territory is open to claim, including Okinawa Island — home to 1.3 million people and major U.S. military bases.
The biggest of the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa Prefecture) that stretch for about 1,000 km from Japan's mainland almost to Taiwan, Okinawa Island was the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which pledged fealty to both Chinese emperors and Japanese feudal lords.
For hundreds of years it paid tribute to China's Ming and Qing dynasties, until it was absorbed by Japan in 1879. Its people are considered more closely related to Japan in ethnic and linguistic terms than to China.
Some Chinese, however, see historical and cultural ties as the basis for a sovereignty claim and dismiss Japan's possession of the islands as a legacy of its aggressive military expansionism that ended in World War II defeat.
"This kind of thing proves Ryukyu is China's," said electrical engineer Zhu Shaobo, admiring a display about the isles at the Imperial College, now a tourist site.
"Ryukyuan students studied hard and the cultural level of some was not inferior to Chinese students," explains an exhibit panel at the institution, which trained Imperial officials and some foreign students.
The belief that China has a legitimate claim to the Ryukyus has existed among flag-wavers in China — and Taiwan — for years.
But it has been given renewed attention by the row over the uninhabited and Japan-controlled Senkaku islets, known as Diaoyu in China, which claims them as part of its sovereign territory.
In recent anti-Japan protests in China, some demonstrators carried signs reading "Retake Ryukyu" and "Take back Okinawa."
China's government does not make such claims, but state media have carried articles and commentaries questioning Japan's jurisdiction over the isles.
In an article carried by state media in July, People's Liberation Army Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan wrote: "The Ryukyu Kingdom had always been an independent kingdom directly under the Chinese imperial government before it was seized by Japan in 1879."
The kingdom, which lasted from 1429 until 1879, had a complex history wedged between powerful neighbors. In return for tribute to Chinese emperors, trade and cultural ties flourished, but it came under pressure from Japan in the early 17th century, suffering a punitive invasion and demands for loyalty and tribute.
Nominal independence, however, was maintained, and the "dual subordination" continued until the late 19th century, when a rapidly modernizing Japan could no longer tolerate the Ryukyu's vague status.
Western and Japanese scholars alike say the islands' links to China are no basis for a sovereignty claim today, pointing out that many states were part of a China-centered structure of international relations in Asia.
"It was a system of cultural subordination and also a way of the Chinese empire attempting to control trade," said Gregory Smits, an expert on the Ryukyu Kingdom's history at Pennsylvania State University.
Experts see little chance of Beijing officially pushing for the isles to be returned to its jurisdiction.
Gavan McCormack, professor emeritus at the Australian National University in Canberra, called any claim "quite unrealistic" and said it was probably "an extreme position to try and attract Japan back to the negotiating table" over the Senkakus clash.
Jia Qingguo, an expert in international relations at Peking University, said, "I don't think the Chinese government wants to further complicate an already complicated issue."