Greater Tokyo to annex China-claimed Senkaku Islands?

Tokyo’s notoriously nationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara is pushing a plan for the metropolitan government to purchase and annex the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea—known to Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands, and claimed by China although under Japan‘s actual control. The uninhabited islands are now privately owned by the Kurihara family, who bought them decades ago from descendants of the previous Japanese owners. With East China Sea hydrocarbon resources at stake, the barren islands have become a flashpoint for Sino-Japanese brinkmanship—most recently in September 2010, when Japan Coast Guard patrol boats confronted a Chinese fishing vessel. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has received more than ¥1 billion in donations from citizens over the past month for its plan to buy the islands. The scheme is an implicit dig at the national government, which Ishihara accuses of not doing enough to defend the islands from China. But his explicit wrath was aimed at Beijing: “An endlessly hegemonic China is now trying to get control of the Pacific, and targeting Senkaku is one of the steps for doing that. We must lock the doors of the Japanese house more carefully when they have clearly shown their intention to intrude and steal things.”

The details of the plan seem a little fuzzy. The islands are in Ishigaki municipality of Okinawa prefecture—over a thousand miles from Tokyo. Ishigaki Mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama told reporters he welcomes Ishihara’s plan—while discretely adding that “joint ownership with our city is desirable.” In other words, not outright annexation to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Other Okinawa officials were apparently flabbergasted by the proposal, with one (anonymous) official telling Kyodo news agency that Ishihara had issued “a bolt out of the blue.” (Kyodo, June 2; AFP, May 29; Kyodo, April 18)

As wacky as this proposal seems, there are a few factors that make it even more complicated. While the above cited reports mention that Taiwan also claims the Senkaku/Diaoyu chain, they fail to note that what is now Okinawa Prefecture was the independent kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands until the archipelago’s 1879 annexation by the Japanese empire. The unpopular US military presence on Okinawa Island led to emergence of an independence movement seeking to restore the Ryukyu nation in the 1980s. The movement has sporadically percolated since then.

The Ryukyu kingdom had been under the suzerainty of both Japan and China (each under the guise of protecting it from the other, of course) at various times in its thousand-year history, and it is hardly surprising that China’s own bellicists openly advocate that Beijing exploit the independence movement. A Nov. 8, 2010 commentary in China’s Huanqiu newspaper entitled “China Should Support the Ryukyu Independence Movement” was translated into English by the Watching America website, which monitors what the foreign press writes about the US. It portrays a Washington design to inflame war between Japan and China over the “Diaoyutai Islands,” characterizes Japan’s rule over the Ryukyus as a “bloody reign,” and calls Okinawa an “internal colony.” It claims that most of the Ryukyu Islands’ inhabitants originated in China’s Fujian province, and that “one of the main goals of Ryukyus’ independence struggle” is “the strategic security of China.”

There have indeed been bloody episodes during Japan’s rule over Ryukyu/Okinawa. But while the Okinawan Shorin-Ryu website (devoted to the Okinawan martial arts tradition, but containing much interesting background on the island’s culture generally) emphasizes (in italics) “Japanese IS NOT the native language of Okinawa,” it also tells us that the Okinawan language, Uchina Guchi, does belong to the “Japanese-Ryukyuan language family.” So the claim of Fujianese origins sounds either specious or so distant as to be basically irrelevant.

More to the point, Niraikanai, the “Ryukyu-Okinawa History & Culture Website,” has archived a copy of “The Unofficial Constitution of the Republic of the Ryukyus,” issued by independence advocates in 1981. The preamble rejects all Great Power claims:

We, the people of the Republic of the Ryukyus, having suffered centuries of exploitation and oppression under the feudalistic and imperialistic rule of China, Japan, and the United States of America, have finally achieved our long-held goals of freedom and independence through a process of democratic revolution consistent with contemporary global political developments.

We, the people of the Republic of the Ryukyus, enact this Constitution for ourselves and for our descendents, with the aim of preventing the tragedy of war, ensuring peace across our land and harmony with other democratic countries, improving the welfare of the people, preserving domestic calm, and establishing justice.

To anyone who knows some history, Ishihara’s complaint about China seeking “hegemony” over Japanese territory is hilariously ironic. But Ishihara seems to be willfully ignorant of history—or, more likely, is in conscious denial. He sure didn’t help matters any when earlier this year he voiced his support of controversial remarks made by Nagoya mayor Takashi Kawamura, denying that the Rape of Nanking ever took place. Resorting to the sort of pseudo-demographic sophistry beloved of genocide deniers, Ishihara said: “It would have been absolutely impossible for the Japanese army to kill 400,000 people with that equipment in that period of time.” Nor was this Ishihara’s first such denial of the historical reality. In 1990, he said in an interview with Playboy: “People say that the Japanese made a holocaust but that is not true. It is a story made up by the Chinese. It has tarnished the image of Japan, but it is a lie.” Ishihara has also publicly backed the film The Truth about Nanjing (南京の真実), an upcoming documentary by Japanese filmmaker Satoru Mizushima which purports to debunk the 1937 massacre.

Kawamura actually made his history-denying comment in front of Liu Zhiwei, a member of the Nanjing Communist Party Committee, who was in Nagoya for an official visit. The city of Nanjing has suspended its sister-city relationship with Nagoya in response to the faux pas. (Shanghaiist, March 3; Shangaiist, Feb. 23)

As for those bellicose US designs in the region… Chinese fears are not likely to be assuaged by the Pentagon’s new plans for “stealth destroyers”—almost explicitly designed for a sneak attack on China’s Pacific coast. From an extremely disquieting June 4 AP report:

SINGAPORE — A super-stealthy warship that could underpin the U.S. navy’s China strategy will be able to sneak up on coastlines virtually undetected and pound targets with electromagnetic “railguns” right out of a sci-fi movie…

The DDG-1000 and other stealth destroyers of the Zumwalt class feature a wave-piercing hull that leaves almost no wake, electric drive propulsion and advanced sonar and missiles. They are longer and heavier than existing destroyers — but will have half the crew because of automated systems and appear to be little more than a small fishing boat on enemy radar.

Unless anyone doubted that a New Cold War with China is now well underway, dig this closing paragraph:

But Rear Adm. Zhang Zhaozhong, an outspoken commentator affiliated with China’s National Defense University, scoffed at the hype surrounding the ship, saying that despite its high-tech design it could be overwhelmed by a swarm of fishing boats laden with explosives. If enough boats were mobilized some could get through to blow a hole in its hull, he said.

“It would be a goner,” he said recently on state broadcaster CCTV’s military channel.

While Great Power jingos rattle those sabers, we are waiting for the Ryukyu independence movement to weigh in on Ishihara’s plan. Are you out there, comrades?

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