Why Islands Still Matter in Asia

The enduring significance of the Pacific 'island chains'

Arguably the most interesting Pacific geostrategic development in recent years has been what might be broadly interpreted as China’s creation of a small new island chain in the South China Sea. While other neighboring coastal states have in previous years very slowly and modestly used land reclamation to augment features under their control, since 2014 Beijing has utterly surpassed them all, both qualitatively and quantitatively. China has engaged in industrial-scale dredging, reclamation, and construction to transform a set of seven Spratly submerged reefs and rocks into large artificial islands hosting a growing constellation of facilities, many militarily-relevant. Additionally, in the Paracels near Vietnam, China has further augmented features it holds, including the already-substantial Woody Island. Now, Woody Island in the Paracels and Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs in the Spratlys boast 3 km-long-runways, sufficient to accommodate all Chinese military aircraft. Mischief Reef, also in the Spratlys, has an airfield under construction that is nearly as long.

This represents an extremely rare case in history of a nation altering inconvenient facts of geography in its favor; previous Chinese geoengineering achievements included the Great Wall and the Grand Canal. Now, in the South China Sea, Beijing is literally raising from the depths a small inner island chain to outflank what it sees as foreign threats to its sovereign claims, in part from enemy forces able to utilize bases along the First Island Chain. This is the classic approach of a continental power operating along interior lines attempting to outmaneuver a maritime power operating along exterior lines—only in this instance, uniquely, projected far out to sea from artificial features. This configuration underscores a critical reality of China as a sea power: it has genuine maritime dynamism in ways that the Soviet Union and other land powers lacked, yet the core of its focus remains rooted in outstanding territorial claims within its immediate region. As such, it is poised to remain for the foreseeable future what might be termed a “land-sea hybrid” (陆海兼备) state that is developing tremendous scale and capabilities as a “maritime power” (海洋强国), while retaining a vital landward dimension as well. Given this geostrategic context, Chinese strategists will continue to place the island chains at the center of their thinking.


A Return to the Island Chains

Meanwhile, recent Chinese developments are returning foreign attention to the island chains. In the context of growing Chinese military capabilities and the perception of increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Western Pacific, Japanese and American strategists are once again thinking through the potential strategic and operational value of the island chains. Japan’s 2010 National Defense Planning Guidance articulated a “dynamic defense force” concept that places greater emphasis on air and ballistic missile defense in its southwestern islands. More recently, citing Japanese military officials, Reuters reports that Tokyo is responding to perceived Chinese threats by reinforcing islands between mainland Japan and Taiwan with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile batteries. This is intended as “Joint Dynamic Defense,” a Japanese version of China’s “anti-access/area-denial” strategy designed to deter Chinese aggression within the First Island Chain. According to Satoshi Morimoto, a former Japanese defense minister, “In the next five or six years, the first island chain will be crucial in the military balance between China and the U.S.-Japan [alliance].”