Tangled past of the Diaoyus/Senkakus
Philip Bowring traces the competing historical claims on the Ryukyu islands - now part of Japan and to which the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands once belonged - that may again be significant
The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, just like the Dokdo/Takeshima ones disputed between Japan and Korea, are just barren rocks of no obvious value. But they are just the visible part of icebergs of history. That few on any side know much about the history does not seem to matter as long as the issues can be dragged into the headlines when elections are at hand or diversions from leadership scandals required.
At least the Korea/Japan spat has scant broader international implications - other than embarrassing their mutual ally, the US.
The latest Diaoyu/Senkaku furore was created by Hong Kong activists enjoying tacit Beijing backing and cheered by a Hong Kong media keen to show it does not need the "national education" the government wants to thrust on the younger generation. More worryingly, Diaoyu/Senkaku may be the tip of an iceberg extending almost to Kyushu, Japan's southernmost main island.
In its simplest terms, China's claims to these rocks rest on the argument that they are on the continental shelf of China and separated from Japanese territory, which runs parallel to the Ryukyu Islands almost all the way to Kyushu. Japan rejects that on the grounds that the shelf does not stop at the trough but extends southeast until the steep drop-off to the deep Pacific waters southeast of the Ryukyu island chain.
China's shelf-based claim is strong but accepting it adds relatively little to its seabed rights, given that the rocks cannot support human habitation.
The hidden iceberg of history is not potential seabed resources but a much bigger issue: the Ryukyu chain, which is now part of Japan and runs for 1,000 kilometres and is centred on Okinawa, the site of a huge US military base. The nearest permanently inhabited island to Diaoyu/Senkaku is Ishigaki, home to 45,000 people in the southern Ryukyus, or what the Japanese call the Nansei Shoto or southwest islands. It is slightly closer than the northeastern tip of Taiwan.
That Diaoyu/Senkaku might be part of the Ryukyus rather than on China's continental shelf would not matter much unless Japan's rights to the Ryukyus were also challenged.
For the past 150 years, the Japanese - with a brief US interruption - have controlled the Ryukyus and regarded Diaoyu/Senkaku as part of that island chain. The Chinese claim to Diaoyu/Senkaku thus contains, at least in some Japanese eyes, the embryo of a claim to more or all of the Ryukyus.
That may seem paranoid fantasy until history is brought into play. China had its own ancient claim to the Ryukyus, which was only abandoned after the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895 ending the Sino-Japanese war and ceding Taiwan and part of Manchuria to Japan. That treaty was later denounced as "unequal", and "stolen" lands returned to China in 1945.
The Ryukyus had never been a prize of the Sino-Japanese war, having already become a province of Japan. But the US treated them differently, partly because of the importance of Okinawa but partly because of a separate history involving America as well as China. They were not returned to Japan till 1972.
The history of the Ryukyus is complicated, not least by distance between the islands. Suffice to summarise that the people were of essentially Japanese origin and language but with additions of Malays, Chinese and others who left cultural as well as genetic marks. From time to time under direct Japanese rule, they were mostly in practice autonomous and engaged in trade with Southeast Asia, China and Japan.
For several centuries, they were tributary states of both China and Japan - tribute being the price for trade access - and often had closer relations with China than Japan. Some past tributary status may seem irrelevant. Most of northeast and Southeast Asia paid tribute to Beijing at some point to gain access. But it is one of those bits of history that can and is brought into play when opportunity knocks.
United in the 16th century under a king based in Okinawa, the Ryukyus' semi-autonomous status remained. So, when in 1853 America's Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Naha with a large fleet, he treated it as a quasi-independent territory. He prevailed on it to sign a treaty with the US and even tried to persuade US president Franklin Pierce to annex Okinawa - he declined.
Perry went on to force the opening of Japan to Western trade and so spur the Meiji restoration and modernisation of the nation. But, alarmed by Western expansion, Tokyo decided that the Ryukyus' ambiguous status was a strategic threat and in 1879 formally annexed Okinawa. At China's request, former US president Ulysses Grant was asked to mediate over competing Ryukyu claims but China rejected an 1880 proposal that would have allowed it to take the southern islands while Japan kept the rest. All the islands were then integrated into Japan as Okinawa prefecture. Integration has been largely successful, though Okinawa's reluctant hosting of a huge US military presence has remained contentious.
There are sure to be nationalists in Beijing who would be happy to brush the dust off those earlier claims and see the Diaoyus as a stepping stone.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator