Why Islands Still Matter in Asia

The enduring significance of the Pacific 'island chains'

To be sure, the island chains’ precise strategic value, and hence strategists’ specific emphases on them, has varied significantly as a function of changes in military technology and application—including what weapons are based on them, how far those weapons can reach, and whether it is possible to defend and supply them. This value changed significantly during the interwar period. It shifted profoundly during the Pacific War (which, among other things, highlighted the need for air defenses to protect ships and land installations and the importance of submarines in severing supply lines). Today, it is shifting greatly once more, with the advent of much longer-range strike systems (aircraft, anti-ship cruise missiles/ASCMs, land-attack cruise missiles/LACMs, conventional ballistic missiles); and defensive systems (long-range surface-to-air missiles/SAMs). These developments are dramatically increasing the range of shore-based systems versus those based on ships—a dynamic that Chinese planners have exploited deftly and systematically. This might also apply to the value of individual islands like Taiwan, which is not placed to expand China’s power projection capability significantly, but (by virtue of geography) could in theory offer a potent “springboard” for a foreign military to attack mainland China. Such theory might have accorded with empirical reality in 1980, but this is certainly much less the case today given the PLA’s ability to crater runways; attack command and control with precision strike weapons; and use long-range SAMs to attack aircraft as soon as they are airborne. In short, given today’s Chinese weapons, Taiwan is too close to mainland China to have maximum “strategic value.”

Island chains are the subject of focus as much for their exceptional vulnerability as for their exceptional capabilities, however. Their very concentration offers an enemy a conveniently-circumscribed target set. In today’s era of long-range precision strike (LRPS), the problem has become nothing short of acute. Not for nothing has China developed and deployed the world’s largest, most diverse sub-strategic conventional ballistic missile force. Beijing now has the ability to strike more islands, in more ways, more effectively; Washington and its allies must think how best to respond.

At the geopolitical level, as documented earlier, the island chains, like the region they shape geophysically, have long been regarded as important fulcrums of world affairs. Today, as the U.S. Pacific Command emphasizes,

“The 36 nations comprising the Asia-Pacific region are home to more than 50% of the world’s population…several of the world’s largest militaries, and five nations allied with the U.S. through mutual defense treaties. Two of the three largest economies are located in the Asia-Pacific. . . . The [region] includes the most populous nation in the world, the largest democracy, and the largest Muslim-majority nation. . . . The region is a vital driver of the global economy and includes the world’s busiest international sea lanes and nine of the ten largest ports. The Asia-Pacific is also a heavily militarized region, with seven of the world’s ten largest standing militaries and five of the world’s declared nuclear nations. Given these conditions, the strategic complexity facing the region is unique.”

The island chains have long been considered particularly relevant to opposing an authoritarian continental state’s attempt to dominate Eurasia, a central imperative of U.S. strategy since its ascendance to the world stage since the late nineteenth century. During the Pacific War, Tokyo—with its sweeping seizure of Chinese territory—arguably constituted precisely such a challenge. Throughout much of the Cold War, Washington mounted geopolitically-similar opposition to both Chinese and Soviet efforts to dominate Eurasia. Recently, with China’s rise and Russia’s military resurgence, at least some Western strategists perceive analogous dynamics.

In sum, in the geopolitically-vital Pacific, the relatively few desirable and available islands are disproportionately valuable for their ability to host vital military facilities. Despite their limited strategic depth and consequent growing vulnerability to LRPS weapons, they remain irreplaceable. After all, their number remains fixed—with one notable exception.


A New Island Chain?