BEIJING » A group of Chinese scholars, analysts and military officials convened on a recent morning in a spartan schoolroom to draw attention to China's simmering territorial dispute with Japan. Participants spoke in urgent tones. Reporters took notes. A spirit of solidarity reigned.
But the deliberations were not about the barren rocks in the East China Sea that are known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan and that the two nations have been sparring over with competing naval patrols.
Instead, the group that gathered at Renmin University was focused on a far more enticing prize — Japan's southernmost island chain, which includes the strategic linchpin of Okinawa, home to 1.3 million Japanese citizens, not to mention 27,000 U.S. troops.
The Chinese government itself has not asserted a claim to Okinawa or the other isles in the Ryukyu chain. But the seminar last month, which included state researchers and retired officers from the senior ranks of the People's Liberation Army, was the latest act in what seems to be a semiofficial campaign in China to question Japanese rule of the islands.
A magazine affiliated with the Chinese Foreign Ministry published a four-page spread on the issue in March. People's Daily, the Communist Party's official newspaper, weighed in next with an op-ed by two prominent scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Two more pieces appeared in Global Times, another state newspaper.
And a week before the seminar, a hawkish Chinese military official argued publicly that the Japanese did not have sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands because its inhabitants paid tribute to Chinese emperors hundreds of years before they started doing so to Japan.
"For now, let's not discuss whether they belong to China — they were certainly China's tributary state," the official, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, told the state-run China News Service. "I am not saying all former tributary states belong to China, but we can say with certainty that the Ryukyus do not belong to Japan."
Another senior Chinese military official appeared to back off those remarks. The official, Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo, a deputy chief of staff, assured a conference in Singapore this month that China's position on the islands had not changed.
"Scholars are free to put forward any ideas they want," he said. "It doesn't represent the views of the Chinese government."
But almost all the voices in China pressing the Okinawa issue are affiliated in some way with the government. Many of them, including Luo, are known for spouting nationalistic views that can go beyond the official line — and for being called on to do so when it serves a wider propaganda goal.
In this case, the goal may be to strengthen China's claim on the islands known as the Senkaku and the Diaoyu, more than 250 miles west of Okinawa. Tensions have been running high since September, when the Japanese government bought three of the islands from a private owner. Japan said it did so to prevent them from falling into radical nationalist hands, but the move prompted days of street protests in China.
Analysts say that Beijing may be raising the prospect of a simultaneous dispute over the Okinawa chain to strengthen its negotiating hand and convey to Japanese officials that the Chinese government must contend with nationalist public sentiment, too.
At the Renmin seminar, Zhang Shengjun, deputy dean of the school of political science and international studies at Beijing Normal University, said that questioning the ownership of Okinawa was useful for projecting China as a regional power.
"People think that China's foreign policy has only one face — wanting a harmonious world," Zhang said. But the Okinawa issue, he said, was helpful in showing the "black face" of Chinese foreign policy. In Chinese opera, the black face is a reference to a tough, bold character.
Noboru Yamaguchi, a retired Japanese Army general and now a professor at the National Defense Academy in Tokyo, said the Chinese approach might backfire. It will make the Japanese resist Chinese efforts to get control of the islands known as the Senkaku and the Diaoyu even more, he said, and it will have broader effects.
"I don't think it is wise for the Chinese to do this, because it hurts their reputation in the international community," he said.
Although it may seem far-fetched for China to have any claim over Okinawa, where tens of thousands of Japanese and U.S. troops were killed in World War II and the United States still maintains several military bases, Chinese nationalists have for years pointed out that the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom made tribute payments to imperial China. The United States also briefly considered awarding Okinawa to Chiang Kai-shek, the anti-Communist leader in the Chinese civil war.
Zhang Haipeng, one of the authors of the People's Daily article, said Okinawa was important to China's ambitions of projecting naval power into the Pacific Ocean, noting that the Ryukyu are at the northern edge of a chain of islands that include Taiwan and part of the Philippines, both of which Beijing regards as U.S. allies alongside Japan.
"Our navy wants to push through the island chains and reach the eastern Pacific," Zhang said at the seminar. "As my wife says, if the Ryukyu were independent, this problem would be solved."
By focusing attention on Okinawa, the Chinese are touching on an issue that has sometimes strained relations between the United States and Japan. The local population blames Tokyo for saddling them with noise and crime associated with the U.S. bases.
The Chinese are hoping to exploit this unease, said a Japanese official who declined to be named because of diplomatic sensitivity. But the official warned that local antipathy toward Tokyo, and the emergence of a small independence movement on Okinawa, did not translate into a desire to be part of China.
Like other territorial disputes in Asia, the debate over the Ryukyu centers on competing versions of history. Thomas U. Berger, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University, said Japan conquered the islands in 1609 but allowed them to pay tribute to China starting in 1655. Luo, however, said the islands began paying tribute to China as early as 1372 and were not truly subjugated by Japan until 1872.
Berger said China's strongest case might be based on the Cairo Declaration of 1943, in which the allied powers promised that territory taken by Japan would be returned to China.
"These are territories that historically fell into the Chinese sphere of control until Japan forcibly began its course of aggressive expansionism in the late 19th century," he said. "Since the Cairo Declaration committed the Allies to reversing Japan's history of aggression, Okinawa could be included."
But Berger said the U.S. occupation of Okinawa was considered vital to the United States' ability to keep peace in the region, and three U.S. presidents — Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — affirmed that Okinawa belonged to Japan before President Richard M. Nixon returned the island to Tokyo's control in 1972.
"Historically the United States was involved at several stages in determining the status of the Ryukyus," Berger said. "Geopolitically, Okinawa is critical to our strategy in East Asia and is the bedrock on which our alliance with Japan is founded."