Why Islands Still Matter in Asia

Why Islands Still Matter in Asia

The enduring significance of the Pacific 'island chains'

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?

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].”

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.