A top Chinese general yesterday sought to distance the country from claims by some mainland scholars that the Ryukyu Islands, which include Okinawa, do not belong to Japan.
Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army, told a security conference in Singapore that those views did not represent the official position.
In the commentary carried by People's Daily on May 8, two scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Zhang Haipeng and Li Guoqiang, cast doubt on Japan's ownership of the Ryukyus, calling the islands a "vassal state" of China since the 1300s before they were annexed in the 1800s.
"This is only an article of particular scholars and their views on these issues … It does not represent the views of the Chinese government," Qi said at the annual forum known as the Shangri-La Dialogue.
However, he repeated Chinese arguments for China's historical claims over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan. "I have to say the Diaoyu Islands and Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa … the first and the second and the third are not the same nature. The Chinese government on this is very clear," he said.
Macau-based PLA-watcher Antony Wong Dong said he was astonished by China's shifting view, and Qi's comment suggested the People's Daily commentary could be just a "trial balloon".
"The more aggressive stance [raised by the two scholars] could be an attempt to test the waters at the very beginning. It is also likely that there are discrepancies between the military and the academics thereafter," Wong said.
Retired PLA colonel Yue Gang said Qi's aim might be to pacify neighbours worried by the rise of China. "Qi may want to brush aside ... concern in the international community over the possibility that China may claim its sovereignty over places once its vassal states," he said.
"By making it clear that China would not claim those it does not deserve to have, what Qi said has to a certain extent strengthened the country's position on its assertiveness of sovereign rights over the Diaoyus in a more justifiable manner."