Sino-Japanese Tensions Flare Yet Again

Amid the ongoing Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute — a notable spell of discord in the long-strained Sino-Japanese relationship — players on both shores of the have made recent moves stoking the flames of diplomatic resentment. Last week, People’s Daily ran a piece by establishment academics challenging Japan’s sovereignty of the Ryukyu island chain  home to Okinawa prefecture, the administrative body of the Diaoyu/Senkakus situated directly to their east. On May 8, the Wall Street Journal reported:

The People’s Daily newspaper on page nine of Wednesday’s edition ran a lengthy and winding commentary by scholars at a prominent state-run think tank that called for a “reconsideration” of the historical status of Japan’s southernmost Ryukyu island chain, which includes Okinawa. The researchers argued foreign aggression toward China during its final Qing dynasty (1644-1911) weakened it to the point where it couldn’t sufficiently oppose aggressive Japanese inroads in the broader region.

“History’s unresolved questions relating to the Ryukyu have reached a time for reconsideration,” the commentary read.

[…]The Japanese government dismissed the commentary. “There’s no doubt that [Okinawa] belongs to Japan historically and internationally,” said Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga, describing the views expressed in the commentary as “completely out of the question.”

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Japan protested the suggestion that Okinawa may rightfully be Beijing’s territory, an act that was chastised in reiterative English-language commentary from the Global Times on May 11:

The article stirred strong protest from Japan, with Prime Minister saying Tokyo “must voice its position to the world” by rejecting China’s “inappropriate claim.” The US Department of State expressed support for Japan’s sovereignty over Okinawa.

Japan’s overreaction toward the suggestion made by two Chinese scholars in State media mirrors its lack of confidence. In 1971, the US unilaterally handed over control of the Ryukyu Islands to Tokyo. There has always been a legal basis to challenge this illegal act.

[…]If Japan ultimately chooses antagonism with China, Beijing should consider changing its current stance and revisit the Ryukyu issue as an unsolved historical problem.

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As Li Guoqiang and Zhang Haipeng, the scholars who penned the People’s Daily article, were studying historical documents to strengthen the case against Japan’s soveriengty over the Ryukyu chain, Japanese politicians enraged many in China by defending certain Japanese war atrocities, and evoking the occurrence of others. Malcolm Moore reports for The Telegraph:

[…O]n Monday, a regional Japanese politician [Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto] reignited a long-running dispute by suggesting that the hundreds of thousands of women abducted from China, Korea and the Philippines and forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese army – known as “comfort” women – was a “necessary” measure during the Second World War.

Subsequently, footage emerged on Tuesday of Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, posing with his thumbs up inside the cockpit of a T4 training jet used by the Blue Impulse flying squad, Japan’s equivalent of the Red Arrows.

On the outside of the jet, however, the number 731 was painted prominently. Largely forgotten in Japan, the number still stirs painful memories in China.

Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army was the covert chemical and biological weapons team that gathered Chinese men, women and subjected them to vivisection without anaesthesia.

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Twenty-five Okinawan women’s groups issued a joint statement demanding an apology for Hashimoto’s comments on the necessity of “”.

Following the galling comments from Japan, a hawkish Chinese military official weighed in on Okinawa’s sovereignty, echoing the view earlier expressed in the People’s Daily. The South China Morning Post reports:

Luo Yuan, a People’s Liberation Army two-star general, has said that Japan could not rightfully claim sovereignty over the islands, because they had started paying tribute to China half a millenium before they had done so to Japan.

The islands had started paying tribute to China in 1372, the general said in an interview with China News Service on Tuesday. Only in 1872, 500 years later, did Japan exploit China’s weakness to force the Ryukuyu Islands into submission, he said.

[…] The general, known for his outspoken nationalism, reasoned that the Ryukyuan people had closer ethnic and cultural ties to coastal China than they had to Japan. Their rulers were vassals of the Chinese court, he argued.

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An article on this most recent flare in Sino-Japanese from The Guardian notes that China’s move to dispute the sovereignty of Okinawa may work against any desire to hold formal talks on the Diaoyu/Senkakus:

Analysts said China was mistaken if it believed that provoking Japan over Okinawa would add momentum to its claims to the Senkaku islands. “If China’s goal is to hold talks with Japan over the Senkakus, articles like these are counterproductive,” M Taylor Fravel, a Chinese foreign policy expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Associated Press.

“As a result, Japan has an even stronger incentive now to stand firm with China and not hold talks.”

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For more on China’s relationship with Japan, the recent re-ignition of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, or other territorial and maritime disputes, see prior CDT coverage.