Why Islands Still Matter in Asia

The enduring significance of the Pacific 'island chains'

Some U.S. military strategists are also reevaluating the importance of the island chains in light of China’s military development. In 2012 U.S. National Defense University scholar T.X. Hammes published a paper that based a military strategy on defending the First Island Chain, denying China’s use of the waters inside it, and dominating the waters outside it. In a 2014 monograph published by the Center for a New American Security, the Naval War College’s Toshi Yoshihara recommended a strengthening of defenses along the First Island Chain to support the U.S.-Japan alliance. In Yoshihara’s words, “the prospects of an impenetrable island chain would play on China’s nightmare scenario that the PLAN could be shut out of the most direct routes to the high seas, lending Japan a psychological edge.” In a 2015 Foreign Affairs article, Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments likewise proposes strengthening the First Island Chain in order to “deny Beijing the ability to achieve its revisionist aims through aggression or coercion.”

Chinese military strategists have already begun to think through the implications of such suggestions by some in the United States and Japan. Senior Colonel Liang Fang, an expert at China’s National Defense University, acknowledged in an interview with the PLA Daily that a “blocked island chain” could indeed have an effect on the ability of Chinese naval ships to “break through” the island chain. Nevertheless, in a more optimistic vein, Liang insisted that a shifting military balance in China’s favor would render such Japanese ambitions increasingly “delusional.”

Senior Colonel Liang’s observation raises a larger recurrent question, which is how changes in military technology, and especially the advent of LRPS capabilities, may affect the strategic value of particular islands and archipelagos. The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2015 report on Chinese military power notes that Taiwan’s defense capabilities have been “eroded” by China’s deployment of more than 1,200 ballistic missiles and other assets, such as improved submarines and combat aircraft. In this context, it is doubtful that Taiwan could serve as what MacArthur envisioned as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” ideally suited for offensive operations against mainland China.

Beijing’s advances in longer-range ballistic and cruise missile technology also pose significant dangers to more distant islands, such as the U.S. strategic hub of Guam. This has, in turn, led scholars at RAND and elsewhere to explore concepts such as deception and dispersal that can be used to defend air bases across the Asia-Pacific from potential Chinese threats.

In the coming years, it is likely that Chinese, American and Japanese strategists—in addition to those from other maritime Asian states—will give concurrent attention to the role that the island chains can play in achieving national military objectives. Chinese strategists will increasingly focus on perceived vulnerabilities of U.S. and allied forces along the island chains, while the latter will consider how forces can be dispersed and hardened so as to deter Chinese aggression. Such strategic and operational calculations will be only the latest in a long line of thinking stretching back to the early twentieth century. How that thinking evolves could leave an indelible mark on the strategic balance in the twenty-first century.

Andrew S. Erickson, Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College, blogs at www.andrewerickson.com. Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. The views expressed are their own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government. They thank Phillip C. Saunders and T.X. Hammes for valuable suggestions.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Carlin Leslie.