HONG KONG - The questioning of Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa, by Chinese scholars appears to reflect a new Beijing approach toward antagonistic foreign governments.
A May 8 commentary in the official People’s Daily newspaper by two researchers at a top government think tank — the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences — asserted that the kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands was a Chinese vassal state during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and concluded: “It may be time to revisit the unresolved historical issue of the Ryukyu Islands.”
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, asked if China accepts that “the Ryukyus and Okinawa are Japan’s territory,” responded evasively: “Academics have long paid attention to the history of the Ryukyus and Okinawa.”
This was interpreted by some as lodging a Chinese claim to sovereignty. Actually, the goal is probably more limited. It is to weaken Japan’s claim to the disputed Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyus.
Japan claims the Senkakus as part of the Ryukyu Islands and, by arguing that the Ryukyus themselves don’t belong to Japan, China hopes to show that the Senkakus, by definition, also do not belong to Japan.
But the longer term Chinese threat is to support a secessionist movement in Japan.
On May 10, an article in the Global Times, which is affiliated to the People’s Daily, asserted that the Ryukyu issue offered leverage to China.
If Japan chooses to be antagonistic, it said, China can take a number of steps, culminating with “fostering forces in Okinawa that seek the restoration of the independence of the Ryukyu Chain. … China should impose threats on the country’s integrity.”
Interestingly, the threat to support secessionist forces in Japan comes in the wake of a similar threat to the United Kingdom, apparently in retaliation for Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama a year ago.
In January, the Global Times declared in an editorial: “China has more leverage than Britain has in their bilateral relations. China cultivating more contacts with separatists in North Ireland and Scotland would make London quite uncomfortable.”
On May 10, new Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, on his first overseas trip, pledged “full support” for “Argentine sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands.” Argentina fought a war with Britain over the islands in 1982, which calls them the Falklands.
Ironically, perhaps, Britain in 2008 gave up its traditional position, which acknowledged only Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, and acknowledged that Tibet was an integral part of China.
Perhaps even more ironically, Hywel Williams of Plaid Cymru, which supports Welsh independence, responded to the offer of Chinese backing for breakaway movements in the United Kingdom by calling on the communist government to improve human rights in Tibet.
Uncomfortable or not, London has promised Scotland a referendum on independence in 2014. It is unimaginable that China would ever make such an offer to Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang.
A Chinese strategy of supporting overseas secessionist forces to weaken unbending foreign governments — if indeed Beijing goes ahead with this plan — recalls China’s failed policy in the 1970s toward the countries of Southeast Asia.
Then, the Chinese government proclaimed friendly relations with the governments of such countries as Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party was secretly giving material support to underground communist movements aimed at overthrowing those governments.
China apparently did not see the hypocrisy of such a policy — especially when it claimed not to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs — until Deng Xiaoping visited Southeast Asia in November 1978.
In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew spoke to him and successfully persuaded him to change course. It took some time for this to happen but, by the mid-1980s, China had stopped exporting revolution.
Now, again, it seems, China is seeking to undermine governments with which it has ostensibly friendly relations, this time with the aim of making them more accommodating to Chinese wishes.
However, a Chinese strategy of supporting separatist movements may well backfire.
The Global Times, surprisingly, says: “China doesn’t need to worry that bringing up the Ryukyu issue will provide an excuse for external forces to foment separatism in China. As long as significant economic and social setbacks do not take place in the country, the threat of separatism is set to diminish.”
But Beijing should realize that, despite what the Global Times says, China is extremely vulnerable, given the sympathy that Tibetans and Uigurs already enjoy in the West.
Before proceeding any further in this direction, China should pay heed to an old Chinese exhortation it has urged upon others: Rein in at the brink of the precipice.
Frank Ching is a journalist based in Hong Kong. Email: Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org