Why Islands Still Matter in Asia

The enduring significance of the Pacific 'island chains'

“. . . the western strategic frontier of the United States lay on the littoral line of the Americas with an exposed island salient extending out through Hawaii, Midway and Guam to the Philippines. That salient proved not an outpost of strength but an avenue of weakness along which the enemy could and did attack. The Pacific was a potential area of advance for any predatory force intent upon striking at the bordering land areas.

“All this was changed by our Pacific victory, our strategic frontier then shifted to embrace the entire Pacific Ocean which became a vast moat to protect us as long as we hold it. Indeed, it acts as a protective shield for all of the Americas and all free lands of the Pacific Ocean area. We control it to the shores of Asia by a chain of islands extending in an arc from the Aleutians to the Mariannas held by us and our free allies.

“From this island chain we can dominate with sea and air power every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific. . . .

“The holding of this defense line in the western Pacific is entirely dependent upon holding all segments thereof, for any major breach of that line by an unfriendly power would render vulnerable to determined attack every other major segment. This is a military estimate as to which I have yet to find a military leader who will take exception. For that reason I have strongly recommended in the past as a matter of military urgency that under no circumstances must Formosa fall under Communist control. Such an eventuality would at once threaten the freedom of the Philippines and the loss of Japan, and might well force our western frontier back to the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.”

However ill-advised some of MacArthur’s actions in Korea and elsewhere; and however excessively-Taiwan-centric, exaggerated, or otherwise unrealistic the above maritime domino theory might be to implement fully in practice; his island chain philosophy indeed encapsulates some important strategic thinking of the era. Such thinking unquestionably influenced Chinese strategists as they sought to make sense of their nation’s geostrategic position, the security challenges it faced, and what it might do to address them.


China’s Appropriation of the Concept

In formulating their own views on the island chains, Chinese military theorists frequently look back on American strategic ideas from the mid-twentieth century. Many Chinese sources refer to early Cold War-era statements articulating the need for a U.S. defensive perimeter in the Western Pacific, such as that proposed by MacArthur and others, including Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles. Tracing the origin of the concept, one Chinese military scholar states: “The term ‘island chain’ originated from the proposal made by Western countries led by the United States after World War II by taking advantage of the strategic geographic locations of some special island groups in the Northwest Pacific Ocean waters to suppress and block socialist countries at the time, such as the Soviet Union and China.”

Contemporary Chinese strategic thinking related to the island chains emphasizes the early Cold War-era U.S. strategy of constructing a defensive perimeter meant to contain the Soviet Union and its Chinese ally. As we chronicle in a recent China Quarterly article, Chinese military writings frequently refer to the island chains as barriers imposed by the United States that limit China’s ability to evolve into a genuine maritime power with freedom of maneuver throughout the Western Pacific. A 2007 article in the Chinese navy’s official magazine, for instance, declares that the island chains have the power to “contain China and the Chinese navy.” Two Chinese naval strategists similarly argue that the “partially sealed-off nature of China’s maritime region has clearly brought negative effects on China’s maritime security.” Moreover, harkening back to American activities in the 1950s, contemporary Chinese writings often portray U.S. force deployments in areas such as Guam, the Philippines, and Okinawa as the result of “Cold War thinking” designed to contain China.

A similar strand of Chinese military thinking conceives of the island chains as “springboards” from which the U.S. military can conduct operations close to Chinese sovereignty claims. For instance, retired PLAN Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong has identified Guam as a strategic location from which the United States can “immediately send out aircraft or dispatch submarines, in order to put power into the war zone,” referring to the Taiwan Strait.