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[All Politics is Global] Why Is China Suddenly Pursuing Okinawa?

Its territorial appetite combined with the apparent graduation by China from a defensive to a preemptive strike posture for defense is raising regional alarms.



China's aircraft carrier Liaoning was taking part in a military drill of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the western Pacific Ocean. April 18, 2018.

A new supposed "build-up of the Chinese case" on Okinawa has been sanctioned by other than Xi Jinping in June 2023. That is when he made his first-ever remarks on the Ryukyus (Okinawa). Xi was quoted by Hong Kong-based Sing Tao Daily. In that quote, he refers to the exchanges between China and Okinawa in the context of the Senkaku Islands. 

The remarks are the first that Xi has ever made publicly made on the Ryukyu Islands since he assumed office. Xi worked in Fuzhou (Fujian Province) as a senior official. At that time, he became aware of the "deep history of the exchanges" with the Ryukyu Islands. So he reportedly stated in the article.

Tracing China's Moves

The traces of building up this case were witnessed in December 2022. That is when China's Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed east between the Okinawa and Miyako Islands, with China's mainland to the west. It appeared that the PLA Navy engaged in vital military signaling by sailing deliberately between two islands deep in Japanese territory. It is also in what China calls the "first island chain." 

Revanchists in China have often pointed to Okinawa as a potential territorial claim for Beijing. The strategic value of Okinawa remains further pronounced in terms of military and political geography. 

Okinawa sits between the southern end of the Japanese mainland, Taiwan, and China. It is an area where today's Great Power games are playing out most intensely and visibly. 

Besides the forward-basing edge it provides, Okinawa is also a useful platform for surveillance and intelligence collection activities for military operations.

marine surveys
Chinese oceanographic research vessel conducting an unauthorized survey inside Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in Okinawa Prefecture. (July 2020. Photo by Japan’s 3rd Regional Coast Guard Headquarters)

Okinawa Lands and the 'Liaoning' Incident

Subsequently, in February 2023, there was a social media post by a Chinese woman claiming that she had "purchased an uninhabited island in Okinawa Prefecture." Her post caused a stir online. 

It was reported that the woman told Chinese media that a company run by her relative "bought the Yanaha Island." The island is located north of the main Okinawa Island. As per the Izena village office in Okinawa that oversees the island, the company owns about 50 percent of the total land. Meanwhile, its beaches are held mostly by the local government and administration.

China National Security Strategy
China televises the firing of ballistic missiles into "training" areas around Taiwan and also in Japan's EEZ in Okinawa Prefecture. August 4, 2022. Photo from Weibo.

Intimidating Japan

China might take heed of Xi's utterance. To most, however, this is nothing but Beijing's predictable abstract territorial claims pitch. It holds no legal/historical evidence or grounding. 

Rather, Xi's utterance is being read as an attempt by China to put pressure on Japan. That is because of Tokyo's proactive stance on the Taiwan issue. In response, the Chinese Communist Party has been publishing articles in its mouthpieces claiming that the "status of Okinawa was unresolved." By this, they are suggesting China's territorial claims over it.

However, the Okinawa mention by Xi Jinping goes far deeper than what meets the eye. It is beyond being a mere caution by China to Japan on the Taiwan issue. 

China's Dongfeng-21D Missiles

Bigger than Newfound Territorial Claims

The latest 2023 assessment of the world's nuclear forces underlines the steep rise in China's nuclear arsenal. The report was released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). It points out that most of the new nuclear warheads that entered the arsenals of any major military power in 2022 were those of China.  increasing from 350 warheads in January 2022 to 410 in January 2023.

The Chinese government's declared aim is to maintain China's nuclear capabilities at the minimum level with the goal of "deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China." That said, the posture is changing significantly, with hundreds of missile silos being built, additional submarines under construction, and new nuclear bombers being added to the force.


Beijing's stated nuclear policy has primarily been guided by three principles: no-first-use (NFU), a limited arsenal, and supporting complete nuclear disarmament. 

While its "limited arsenal" pledge is being fast debunked in light of SIPRI's latest estimates, the NFU principle, too, is viewed with increasing suspicion. This is also the argument made in my 2014 book titled, Nuclear China: A Veiled Secret

Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Li Shangfu speaks at the Asian Security Conference in Singapore on June 4, 2023. (©Kyodo)

Shifts in China's Strategic Posture

China's operational doctrine at the conventional levels appears to have graduated from a defensive to a preemptive strike (xianf azhiren). However, in the strategic sphere, it remains counter-retaliation (houfa zhiren). The debate surrounding China's moving flexibility in its operational doctrine continues unabated.

In 1964, Beijing announced that it would adhere to NFU of nuclear weapons (bu shouxian shiyong). Meanwhile, it has made an unequivocal commitment that under no circumstances will it use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or in nuclear-weapon-free zones. However, there remains considerable confusion, and ambiguity, regarding the scope of the policy and the conditions surrounding it.

Although there is no official public evidence that the Chinese government has violated its nuclear NFU policy, significant questions loom. The most significant is the assertion of China's nuclear NFU commitment on territory claimed by China. 

Located in the Philippines, Fiery Cross Reef has been developed for military purposes by China. (© AP Photo by Aaron Favila)

Context of Nuclear Strategy in Territorial Claims 

Does China's nuclear NFU assertion apply in countries, regions, or defined areas that Beijing unilaterally alleges are Chinese territory? To this, also, Beijing has issued no lucid official clarification. 

In other words, what is the Chinese position on nuclear NFU when contextualizing nuclear weapons in regions on which China has declared territorial claims? That includes Japanese territories of the Senkaku Islands, and now, perhaps Okinawa.

As if it is not involved in enough territorial disputes already, Beijing's elephantine territorial appetite in Asia is disturbing. Considered in the context of China's nuclear weapons activities, it is truly alarming.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.

Stay informed about the latest developments in contemporary Asian security, Great Power politics in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, with insights from Dr Monika Chansoria.


Stay informed about the latest developments in contemporary Asian security, Great Power politics in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, with insights from Dr Monika Chansoria.

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