by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: US Army/Public Domain
WITH RECENT attention paid to suggested Chinese claims of sovereignty over Okinawa according to Chinese state-run media dating from 2013 and naval incursion into the seas surrounding Okinawa in 2015, we might examine the backdrop of these claims. A Japanese territory, containing American bases with over 25,000 servicemen, potential Chinese claims over Okinawa would be a provocation not only against Japan but also America.
Chinese claims date back to the ancient history of Okinawa—then the Ryukyu kingdom—as a tributary state of China. If this is raised as an attempt to pry apart Okinawa from Japan, actually Japan and Korea were also historical tributary states of China. Against the argument that China will be happy if it is allowed to have the territories it currently claims in the present, many have raised that the citing of Chinese history from some time immemorial allows for the unchecked expansion of Chinese territorial claims in the future. Expanding territorial claims will be justified on the basis of history, with dynastic history serving as a resource for justifying for imperial expansion in the present. Taiwan is already an example of this phenomenon, seeing as Taiwan was only part of China during the Qing dynasty and the Qing never completely controlled the island, but present-day China claims ownership over Taiwan on the basis of claims that Taiwan has belonged to China since time immemorial.
Indeed, though little known outside of Japan, like Taiwan, Okinawa has its own independence movement on the basis of different heritage and language between Okinawa and other parts of Japan. If this is surprising, it should be remembered that Okinawa is in fact geographically closer to Taiwan than to the rest of Japan. The Ryukyu kingdom existed independent of Japan for centuries, though paying tribute to both China and Japan at certain points, and was incorporated into Japan in 1879—this not without legal protest from Qing dynasty China. But it has to also be noted that Okinawa was never fully incorporated into Japan even after its annexation because of this late annexation and the distance of Okinawa from the rest of Japan, allowing for the preservation of an independent sense of identity.
Subsequent history continued to maintain this sense of difference. For example, Okinawa saw fighting between Allied forces and imperial Japan during World War II which wiped out 300,000—one-third of the Okinawa’s population. The more central Japanese islands did not see such fighting. Likewise, after World War II, Okinawa was not administered under the Japanese government, but directly controlled by the US military until 1972. This also served to split off Okinawa from Japan, with the use of American dollars as currency in Okinawa and cars driven on the right side rather than the left side of the road, as in America rather than Japan.
US troops landing on the coastline of Okinawa in April 1945. Photo credit: US Coast Guard
America continues to maintain large-scale bases on Okinawa despite the reversion to Japanese governance. This continues to be a matter of political tension, given that training accidents on American military bases have caused deaths in the past, particularly regarding helicopter crashes. The use of the accident-prone Osprey helicopter is particularly controversial. Another source of tension is that American servicemen have been guilty of crimes committed against Okinawans, including a case of the kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old in 1995 by American servicemen and rape of a 14-year-old in 2008. Hit-and-run incidents by American servicemen have also occurred several times in recent years. Apart from crimes committed by American infantry, there are also cases of forcible relocations of families for base development, and cases in which military exercises regularly disrupt the fabric of everyday life.
In many of these cases of wrongdoing by American servicemen, American suspects are tried internally within the military rather than handed over the Japanese justice system, provoking further ire. The sense of many Okinawans, then, is that they have faced waves of colonization not only from the Japanese, but also Americans. Therefore, Okinawan independence, or Ryukyu independence, survives as an independence movement, not only in Okinawa, but with the support of the Japanese radical Left in the more central Japanese islands, though elements of the political mainstream support an end to US bases in Okinawa. Demonstrations in Okinawa against American bases have approached 100,000 in number in recent years.
Relative location of American bases in Okinawa, China, Japan and Taiwan. Photo credit: Edutraveller.com
However, it is ironic to note that for its own purposes, China has seen fit to try and encourage Okinawan independence while steadfastly inveighing against what it perceives as separatism from Taiwan, or outer Chinese territories as Tibet or Xinjiang. Where China’s claims over Taiwan or disputed claims with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries over South China Seas island chains are concerned, Okinawa is of vital importance precisely because of the US bases located there. If China were to attack Taiwan, for example, American first responders would probably come from Okinawa. This may also be the case regarding American responses to Chinese occupation of South China Seas island chains. Okinawa is a crucial link in the chain of American military presence in the Asia-Pacific, hence the reluctance of the Japanese government to remove unpopular American bases even in spite of popular resistance from residents of Okinawa and Japanese in more central Japanese islands. Yet China pushing for Okinawan independence from Japan would also likely just be with the aims of incorporating Okinawa into China, as the expansion of Chinese imperial power, rather than the actual aspiration towards independence.
Apart from geographic proximity, parallels between Okinawa and Taiwan are many. George Kerr of Formosa Betrayed fame was interested in Okinawa as a similar situation, even writing a book on it. Although obviously Taiwan already has its de facto independence from China and Okinawa seeks to become independent from Japan to realize an independence it currently lacks, little discussion of Okinawa as facing similar questions of self-determination to Taiwan has occurred in Taiwan, even if Okinawa is a popular vacation spot for Taiwanese.
One imagines also that, in consideration of preserving Taiwan’s de facto independence, some would oppose Okinawan independence if it means the vacating of US bases from Okinawa if that means weakening protection for Taiwan in the case of Chinese assault. This occurs despite the logical contradiction between advocating the right for self-determination of Taiwanese but apparently not of Okinawans.
If Chinese territorial claims expand to Okinawa as a way of counteracting America and Japan as power rivals, this should be a warning to Taiwan and other countries that China will likely expand its territorial claims in the future, even moreso than the present. But this should also raise questions for the Taiwanese people regarding the meaning of their own drive for self-determination and what it means to stand in solidarity with other self-determination struggles.