BEIJING(AFP): A senior Chinese military officer has said theRyukyu Islands- which includeOkinawaand itsUSmilitary bases - "do not belong toJapan", as a territorial row mounts between the Asian powers.

The comments by People's Liberation Army Major General Luo Yuan were published by the China News Service website Tuesday, after the country's leading newspaper last week carried a call to reviewTokyo's sovereignty over the chain. Luo emphasised that the islands were historically in a vassal relationship with imperial Chinese dynasties.

Those ties did not necessarily mean they were part ofChina, he said, adding: "But we can be certain of one point. The Ryukyus don't belong toJapan."

"(If) the Ryukyus don't belong to you," he said, referring toTokyo, "how can you talk about the Diaoyus?"

ChinaandJapanhave been in a long-running dispute over islands in theEast China SeathatTokyoadministers as the Senkakus, butBeijingclaims as the Diaoyus.

The row intensified last year afterJapanpurchased islands in the chain it did not already own, sparking outrage inChina, with anti-Japanese demonstrations taking place in Chinese cities.

Chinese vessels regularly enter waters around the islands andJapanhas scrambled jets to ward off Chinese flights in the area, stoking fears of armed conflict.

Analysts have said questions inChinaabout the Ryukyus' status are probably aimed at pressuringJapanto make concessions in the dispute over the islands, which are administratively part ofOkinawaprefecture.

Luo seemed to back up such a view, saying that by raising the issue of the Ryukyus,Chinastruck a blow atJapan's "soft spot".

Last Wednesday, the People's Daily,China's most-circulated newspaper and the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist party, carried an article by scholars arguing that the country may have rights to the Ryukyus.

Japansays the islands are its territory and are accepted as such internationally.

Before being annexed intoJapanin the late 19th century, the independent Ryukyu kingdom, centred onOkinawa, paid tribute toChinafor centuries - as did numerous other traditional Asian states - often receiving favourable trading rights in return.

Okinawahosts majorUSair force and marine bases and is home to 1.3 million people. TheUSmilitary occupiedOkinawaand some other islands in the Ryukyu chain for 27 years after the end of World War II, returning them toJapanonMay 15, 1972.