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Inside China: China vs. Japan and U.S. on Okinawa

- - Thursday, May 16, 2013

China is challenging a key American policy toward Japan: the unambiguous U.S. support of Japan's sovereign rights to the Ryukyu island chain, including the key strategic island of Okinawa.

The United States does not officially take sides in disputes between China and Japan over the hotly disputed Senkaku Islands, also called the Diaoyu, but Washington repeatedly and unequivocally has recognized Japan's sovereign rights over the Ryukyu Islands. Thousands of U.S. troops are stationed on Okinawa as America's forward deployment force in the Asia-Pacific region. The island is considered a strategic base for resupply efforts in case of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

China recently issued a direct challenge to Japan's claim of sovereignty over the Ryukyus and the U.S. government's support of Japan's position. On May 8, the People's Daily, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, published a sensational and long article headlined: "Not only do we want to take Diaoyu Dao back, but also the Ryukyus are open for discussion."

The article made the central point that sovereignty of the Ryukyus was never decided clearly because the islands are an independent kingdom that historically paid tribute to Chinese imperial dynasties. It also argued that Japan has no legitimate rights over the Ryukyus, including Okinawa.

As if the article were not explosive enough, military commentator Gen. Luo Yuan of the People's Liberation Army's Academy of Military Sciences weighed in Tuesday through official Chinese media to belabor the point that China owns the Ryukyus. The official communist newspaper Global Times on the same day reported on Gen. Luo's comment under the blunt headline: "The Ryukyus belong to China, never to Japan."

The general is one of China's best-known strategists. The Chinese media, including the People's Daily and the Global Times, frequently identify him as an active-duty major general, but he actually may be retired. Gen. Luo often expresses hawkish views in official media, frequently with extreme loathing toward the United States. He is the son of Luo Qingchang, an intelligence chief for Mao Zedong.

Views like his in the tightly controlled official Chinese media pose direct challenges to the U.S. official position that the Ryukyus belong to Japan.

During World War II, the Japanese islands in the Ryukyu chain became a serious obstacle to the allies' military advance toward the Japanese homeland.

After the Okinawa campaign, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in June 1945 decided to exclude the strategically important Ryukyu Islands south of the 30th parallel from Gen. Douglas MacArthur's postwar administration of Japan, and placed those islands directly under U.S. military control.

In 1951, the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed between Japan and the 48 victorious Allied nations, placed the Japanese islands in the Ryukyu chain south of the 29th parallel under a U.N. trusteeship.

The treaty appointed the United States "as the sole administering authority" with the "right to exercise all and any powers of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the territory and inhabitants of these islands, including their territorial waters."

When the treaty took effect on April 28, 1952, it recognized Japan's "potential sovereign claim," if not administrative right, over these islands.

Since 1952, the Japanese government pressed Washington to terminate the trusteeship so the Ryukyu Islands could be administered by Japan.

In the early 1960s, the White House formed a task force "to investigate the current conditions in the Ryukyu Islands and the United States policies and programs in force there."

In March 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order and announced: "I recognize the Ryukyus to be a part of the Japanese homeland and look forward to the day when the security interests of the free world will permit their restoration to full Japanese sovereignty."

Seven years later, Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard M. Nixon issued a joint communique in Washington that set the stage for the full return of Okinawa to Japan, which regained sovereignty of the islands in 1972.

Responding to the People's Daily article, Okinawa Gov. Kirokazu Nakaima called the Chinese claims "ridiculous."

The Japanese government issued a "stern protest" to Beijing about the article and asked for clarification.

"We cannot under any circumstances accept the People's Daily article if it reflects the Chinese government's view," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was quoted as saying.

Chinese government spokeswoman Hua Chunying shot back: "China does not accept Japan's representations or protests."

Miles Yu's column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail and @yu_miles.