China's Okinawa claims touch a sore spot in Japan

CHINA-JAPAN - The Japan-China relationship remains in deep freeze.

This is due mainly to the territorial spat over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets. But, as a result of recent developments, it is Japan rather than China that is feeling particularly uncomfortable.

Bilateral ties nosedived further recently following new pilgrimages of Japanese Cabinet members to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's statement that "the definition of invasion has not yet been settled" (meaning that Japan's wartime behaviour in Asia did not necessarily constitute an "invasion") did not help either.

Such ultra-nationalistic manifestations not only added new fuel to the anger of Japan's neighbours but have also earned it some unusual complaints from Washington.

They also drew a diplomatic remark from Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who, during a recent visit to Tokyo, subtly reminded his hosts of the massacres committed in Singapore by the Japanese occupiers.

Tokyo sticks to its position that there is no territorial dispute with Beijing and, despite indications to the contrary, officially denies the existence of any agreement between the two parties to "shelve" the territorial issue until future generations find the wisdom to solve it.

Indifferent to Tokyo's intransigence on the territorial issue, Beijing has kept up the pressure, sending patrol ships to the vicinity of the disputed islets on a daily basis and mounting a massive international publicity campaign to discredit Japan's position.

Notably, China last month dealt a significant shock to the Japanese by casting doubt on what has long been thought to be an immutable fact: Japan's sovereignty over the Ryukyu islands (of which Okinawa is a part).

These islands extend from the southern tip of mainland Japan to Taiwan, and host America's biggest military bases in Asia.

On May 8, the People's Daily in China provoked widespread consternation with an opinion piece by two researchers questioning the status of the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) as Japanese territory.

A week later, Huanqiu Shibao, affiliated to the daily, pressed the point by calling for support for the nascent movements in Okinawa for independence from Japan.

This was not the first time the issue had been raised in China. But it was the first time that Japanese sovereignty of Okinawa had been questioned in the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

While the Japanese tried to laugh it off as unrealistic fantasy, they could hardly hide their concern at what they see as an "escalation in the Chinese attempts to grab Japanese lands beyond the Senkaku islets".

For Japan, the timing could not be worse. Okinawa has long been the location of simmering popular resentment against mainland Japan. This is because of the gruesome ordeal the territory suffered during the Pacific War, and for the disproportionate number of American military bases that the territory has been forced to host, with resulting hardships for the local population.

The dissatisfaction has reached such a point that some local politicians now openly support the still minor movement that promotes independence.

To understand the complex local sentiment, one needs to recall that Okinawa, with its distinct culture and language, was an independent kingdom under Chinese influence until 1609, when it was forced into a dual tributary relationship with both China and a feudal clan in Japan.

Then, in 1872, in a context of dwindling Chinese power, the kingdom was annexed by a newly unified Imperial Japan.

Although an indisputable part of Japan now, Okinawa has known a long history of suffering and discrimination at the hands of mainland Japan.

Towards the end of the Pacific War, it was the only Japanese territory to suffer bloody battles, resulting in considerable civilian casualties. Some of these civilian casualties were the result of mass suicides forced by the retreating Japanese Army.

After the war ended in 1945, Okinawa had to endure 27 years of rude military administration by the United States. The rest of Japan regained independence from US occupation in 1951.

And even after Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, large parts of the island remained home to sprawling US military bases. The latter constituted a source of frequent danger for the local population as a result of high crime rates involving American servicemen, who continue to enjoy legal immunity.

Now, after years of failed attempts by politicians in Tokyo to negotiate a reduction of US military bases in Okinawa, local anger has reached a dangerous level. But reducing the US presence in Okinawa looks increasingly unlikely in the light of rising Chinese military threats and the need to counter them.

Adding to the spat over the Senkaku/Diaoyu isles, Chinese Navy warships are making increasingly frequent passages through the Ryukyu island chain to the Pacific Ocean. The move is producing increasing concern among US and Japanese defence officials.

Nobody, not even in China, seriously believes in the prospect of Okinawa becoming independent or, even less, falling under Chinese influence. But it is obvious that the People's Daily opinion article on Okinawa is a sore spot for the Japanese. Analysts in Japan are left to worry what the Chinese are up to.

The Ryukyu island chain constitutes a frustrating obstacle for the increasingly assertive Chinese Navy in its quest to challenge American domination of the Pacific Ocean.

The Chinese, however, run a high risk of shooting themselves in the foot by expressing support for Okinawa's independence. Would they not be encouraging similar movements in Taiwan, Tibet and the Uighur regions of Xinjiang?

The writer is a retired French diplomat. Born in Taiwan and educated in Japan, he has served in Japan, the United States, Singapore and China.