Why Islands Still Matter in Asia

The enduring significance of the Pacific 'island chains'

In contrast to these views of the island chains as the locus of threats posed by the U.S. military, some Chinese military theorists see the island chains more as benchmarks for Chinese military operations. This mode of thinking is most prominent among naval strategists. Admiral Liu Huaqing argued that, for the foreseeable future, most naval operations would be confined to the First Island Chain, which he defined as including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippine Islands and the Greater Sunda Islands. But, as a long-term goal, Liu argued that China must be prepared to eventually operate out to the Second Island Chain, including the Mariana Islands, Guam and Palau. Chinese media frequently details progress towards this goal, describing in almost heroic terms the voyages of successive Chinese naval flotillas through the strategic passageways of the First Island Chain, and into more distant waters. For some, then, the island chains have become markers in China’s attempts to develop a “blue water” navy capable of performing both wartime and peacetime missions.


The Island Chains’ Enduring Relevance

Beyond the exigencies of specific planning scenarios, why do strategists from so many nations periodically fix their gaze—explicitly or implicitly—on the island chains? They do so because these long strings of land features have intrinsic geostrategic value. There is a basic geo-operational reason for this. Military platforms and their crews generally require support from appropriately-positioned terrestrial bases for their high-performance, sustained, cost-effective operation. As any glance at a globe reveals, the Pacific Ocean is vast, containing 714 million cubic kilometers of water, 50.1 percent of global seawater. It covers 165.25 million square kilometers (63.8 million square miles)—significantly more than the Earth’s total landmass of 150 million square kilometers (58 million square miles); and equivalent 46 percent of Earth’s water surface and one-third its total surface area. The rapidity and intensity of modern military operations place an additional premium on overcoming this “Tyranny of Distance” expeditiously. Basing military assets in-region, or at least enabling and supporting their deployment there, offers an unrivaled solution.

Yet the Pacific’s unparalleled expanse contains relatively few specks of land, widely dispersed. In the entire Pacific Ocean—including the home islands of Japan, the Philippines, and New Zealand; as well as Taiwan, Hainan, Papua New Guinea, and Hawaii—there are only 20 islands larger than 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles). In the South Pacific (excluding Papua New Guinea), home to the majority of the ocean’s islands, the total landmass is only 551,913 square kilometers (213,095 square miles).

These factors put an inherent premium on the military value of any given Pacific feature, particularly the very few of sufficient size, resources, and human capital to host an advanced military facility. Hence, the late nineteenth century preoccupation with “coaling stations” to power the increasingly-long-range operations of the U.S. and other navies; the Imperial Japanese efforts to gain control of Pacific islands, both to enjoy their use and deny it to the United States; the protracted island hopping campaigns of the Pacific War; and the extraordinarily-rapid, -dramatic American transformation of re-captured islands such as Guam into major militarily facilities, at a cost possibly prohibitive in conditions short of world war.