The First and Second Island Chains
In military strategy as in geoeconomics, geography is not fate. But it does mold fate. Chinese strategists are acutely conscious of this. When they take stock of China’s oceanic future, strategists glimpse everlasting struggle amid claustrophobic surroundings. To Chinese eyes the string of islands just offshore—the “first island chain” enclosing Eurasia’s eastern crest—resembles a Great Wall in reverse where Americans and their allies occupy the sentinel towers. The island chain imprisons China’s freedom of oceangoing movement. This preoccupation with geography is integral to Chinese discourses about sea power—and thus about China’s dream of national vigor and majesty.
We contend that the archipelagic concept casts a long shadow over Chinese strategic thought. It shapes how Chinese leaders perceive threats and in turn informs how they think about strategic and operational requirements for maritime defense. To them the island chain constitutes not just a physical barrier but also a metaphor for the resistance they expect from the occupants of the first island chain, including such potent maritime competitors as Japan and the United States. Consequently, the most fitting metaphor for the island chain is a barricade—a line of physical obstacles occupied by active defenders to ward off an opposing force. Beijing’s effort to ameliorate its island-chain quandary thus helps outsiders probe the nexus of marine geography, sea power, and great-power politics in Asia.
The First Island Chain: A Line at Sea?
The term “first island chain” refers to the offshore archipelago that envelops Eurasia’s eastern seaboard in its entirety. While Western commentators differ over which features constitute the island chain, most concur that it centers primarily on the Japanese home islands, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands. The first island chain is a geographic construct peculiar to China’s worldview, which situates the Chinese mainland at the epicenter of maritime Asia. And indeed, a seaward-looking China cannot avoid facing the islands. The island chain roughly parallels the nation’s long coastline, and no Chinese harbor outflanks it. Worse, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines constitute the “first” island chain only because a more distant, looser island group centered on Guam—the “second island chain”—forms an additional concentric ring around China. In short, China’s unique vantage point infuses the island-chain concept with tangible geospatial meaning.
Analysts outside China began to detect this Sinocentric perspective in Chinese official discourse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Among the first to report on the phrase in Western scholarship were You Ji and You Xu of the Australian National University. In 1991 they claimed that the first island chain comprises Japan, the Ryukyus, and the Philippines. Three years later Alexander Huang defined the island chain more concretely, maintaining that it encompasses “the Aleutians, the Kuriles, the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippine archipelago, and the Greater Sunda Islands.” In 2001 historian and retired U.S. Navy captain Bernard Cole asserted that the island chain runs southward from the Kurile Islands and terminates at Borneo and Natuna Besar. The phrase has seeped into the mainstream Western academic lexicon over the past two decades, aided by analyses such as these.
In recent years this geographic concept has diffused beyond the small circle of China and defense specialists in the West. Official U.S. reports about China’s military and naval modernization use it to describe Chinese geospatial thinking. The Pentagon’s 2006 annual report on Chinese military power delineated the geographic makeup of the first island chain for the first time.4 In a 2009 study of the Chinese navy, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) produced a map that traces the first island chain. The phrase, moreover, now surfaces regularly in the popular press. Robert D. Kaplan, who has done more than any other journalist to draw attention to China’s maritime ambitions, explicitly referred to it in a 2010 opinion column. It is remarkable that an obscure term coined in the recesses of China’s massive military bureaucracy more than thirty years ago has found its way into common parlance in Western newspapers, on websites, and in official documents.
Despite wider usage and acceptance, analysts disagree over the conceptual value of the first island chain. Some naval experts hold that China’s apparent obsession with the archipelagic construct might degrade the quality of Chinese strategic thought and operational planning. Bernard Cole, to name one, argues that the first island chain demarcates a belt of offshore waters that the PLA Navy seeks to command. As the PLAN grows more powerful, it means to expand its reach progressively beyond the first island chain toward the second island chain.
Cole thus postulates that the island chains are geographic features that define the operational scope of Chinese naval activities and “the PLAN is intending to draw lines at sea.” He pronounces such geospatial yardsticks for measuring sea power unhelpful and perhaps even counterproductive. “Ironically,” he contends, “defining ‘phases’ of maritime theaters by fixed geographic boundaries reveals a strong continentalist perspective…. It violates the central tenet of classic maritime strategy that while the soldier thinks of terrain and theaters, the sailor of necessity thinks in wider terms outside immediate physical limits—there is no ‘terrain’ at sea.”
China, in short, is projecting terrestrial defense concepts out to sea. Cole ascribes this habit of mind to China’s strategic traditions, steeped as they are in land warfare, and to Soviet intellectual influence on China’s navy during the Cold War. By implication, the Chinese are indulging in retrograde thinking about sea warfare. He thus concludes that “if the Chinese navy is training and planning to operate within fixed areas and along fixed lines at sea, then it is demonstrating its lack of understanding of naval warfare and exposing itself to failure.”
Admiral Yoji Koda, the former fleet commander of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, likewise objects to the island-chain concept, declaring that it has “no significance” from a “practical military strategy and planning point of view.” First, Koda concurs with Cole that “real naval operations” unfold independent of “lines drawn on charts or maps.” Such lines unduly fetter an oceangoing navy’s “maneuverability, flexibility, and agility.” Second, if Chinese planners treat the island chain as a sort of Maginot Line at sea, then the demands on the PLAN to defend a perimeter undulating across thousands of kilometers would quickly overwhelm China’s finite resources and manpower. No force can be strong at every point along a distended defense perimeter. And third, the archipelago is not neutral territory. It would be presumptuous if not nonsensical for Chinese strategists to draw an offshore defense perimeter incorporating the soil of potentially hostile nations such as Japan and Taiwan. It would be tough to mount a defense from the islands short of invading them.
While these critiques from two sea-service veterans carry analytical weight, they are far too narrowly conceived. Most of their objections are operational in nature. They wonder, for instance, how far offshore Chinese sea power will extend and how the PLA Navy will go about defending the homeland. Construing Chinese maritime strategic thought so literally oversimplifies the island-chain concept. The Chinese are not just drawing lines on a map in a classroom, estranged from strategic and operational reality.
Nor do Chinese thinkers consider the island chain a defensive perimeter shielding China from attack, as Admiral Koda seems to think. It would indeed be nonsensical to designate a prospective foe’s homeland as part of a defensive line. If anything Chinese strategists see it as an American defense perimeter meant to channel, constrict, and perhaps even block Chinese sea and air movement along the Asian seaboard and from the China seas into the western Pacific. If so, it is a hostile fortification to be punctured, not a friendly fortification to be defended.
China’s is an accurate appraisal of the first island chain, and it comports with U.S. strategy dating to the 1950s. It will remain accurate so long as the islands remain in hands friendly to the United States. Cole and Koda err by transposing concepts from open-ocean combat to the congested realm of maritime East Asia. Sea fights far from shore obey the laws of vector mechanics in that they unfold on what amounts to a vast, featureless plain. But no Chinese seafarer worth the name would disregard geography when doing battle. Terrain does matter when fighting close to land. It matters, in other words, at likely scenes of action in maritime Asia.
But in any event, a close reading of open-source literature from the mainland suggests strongly that larger strategic motives, including the range of geopolitical and geoeconomic imperatives, animate Chinese assessments of the first island chain. The discourse in China over the island-chain concept opens a window onto three distinct aspects of Chinese strategic thought. First, it reconfirms China’s perennial belief that the United States harbors malign intent toward China and has done so since the early days of the Cold War.
Second, the U.S. forward bases located along the first and second island chains impress upon Chinese observers the structure of American military power in the western Pacific. Beijing knows it must contend directly with the occupants of the first island chain, and especially with the combined military power of the U.S.-Japan alliance. At the same time the island-chain dilemma underscores the competing geopolitical priorities confronting Beijing on land and at sea. Finally, China’s growing dependence on seaborne commerce—on mercantile traffic that must pass through the narrow seas piercing the first island chain—exacerbates the nation’s offshore economic vulnerability.
It is a central contention of this study that the island-chain concept is not the strictly naval concept Cole and Koda envision. Rather, it is a geographic construct that engages Chinese grand strategy across a range of national security concerns. Discourses about the first island chain reflect Chinese analysts’ understanding of Mahan’s logic and grammar of sea power. Without a broader understanding of what the island chain means to Chinese strategists and policy makers, Western capitals risk understating the analytical value of the first island chain to Beijing while misreading China’s intentions and designs in maritime Asia.
Origins of Island-Chain Thinking
Chinese commentators trace the origins of the island-chain concept to U.S. strategic thought during the early years of the Cold War. These analysts blame American architects of the Cold War for fortifying the island chain to erect a geographic bulwark against Chinese and Soviet communism. To them American hostility toward the newly founded People’s Republic manifested itself most concretely in the alliance relations among the United States, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines—relations that emplaced U.S. forces all along the island chain. This constituted the infrastructure of containment.
Memories of containment run long in China. Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying, scholars from Dalian Maritime University and Dalian University of Technology, recall the words of Dean Acheson, President Harry Truman’s secretary of state. In January 1950, speaking before the National Press Club, Acheson sketched a U.S. “defense perimeter of the Pacific” running along the Aleutians down through Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines. Liu Hong cites General Douglas MacArthur, who in April 1951 told a joint session of Congress that control of “a chain of islands extending in an arc from the Aleutians to the Marianas” would enable the United States “to dominate with sea and air power every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific.”
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, President Dwight Eisenhower’s chief diplomat, is another villain in this storyline. Sang Hong quotes testimony from Dulles to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that described Taiwan as an “important link in the so-called ‘island chain’ that bounds the western rim of the Pacific.” Chen Chungen and Jiang Sihai fault Eisenhower as well for cautioning Americans that losing Taiwan to China would open “a breach in the island chain of the western Pacific that constitutes, for the United States and other free nations, the geographical backbone of their security structure in that ocean.”
Some Chinese analysts see today’s architecture of American military power in the Pacific as a direct descendant of U.S. containment. Huang Yingxu of the AMS contends that “the U.S. assembled a C-shaped strategic formation” incorporating “the first and second island chains formed in the 1950s.” In Huang’s view, the United States has transposed its Cold War containment strategy to the post–Cold War era, inscribing a “C-shaped encirclement, or encirclement arc” on the map of Eurasia. While this strategy “may not be entirely aimed at China,” he concludes, “it surely has the intention to curb and contain China.” Bad memories die hard.
This Chinese version of events reveals a great deal about Beijing’s worldview and habits of thought. By insisting that the United States remains captive to a Cold War mentality, the Chinese relate a politically correct story about Beijing’s maritime environment and corresponding strategic choices. According to this line of reasoning, China’s nautical ambitions represent a mere reaction to the American menace in Asia. A selective reading of history supplies a convenient vehicle for setting the terms of debate about Chinese maritime strategy. No matter how aggressive Chinese strategy becomes, Beijing has the luxury of depicting it as defensive, throwing the United States and its allies on the defensive in future controversies.
While it remains unclear exactly when the phrase “first island chain” entered China’s lexicon, chances are it did so during the 1980s, when Admiral Liu Huaqing was supreme commander of China’s navy. Deng Xiaoping appointed Liu to the top navy post in 1982 with a mandate to reform the service following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. In a speech at a 1987 symposium on PLA naval development, Admiral Liu stated: “The first island chain refers to the Aleutian islands, the Kurile islands, the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu islands, Taiwan island, the Philippine archipelago, and the Greater Sunda island in the western Pacific that form an arc-shaped arrangement of islands akin to a metal chain.” Liu thus construed the island chain in expansive terms, seeing it stretch across vast waters from the North Pacific into the heart of the South China Sea.
The year before his “metal chain” speech, Admiral Liu issued a NDU report that for the first time laid the basis for a coherent Chinese naval strategy. His masterful analysis explicitly depicts the first island chain as one marker delineating the geographic scope of China’s naval operations. It encompasses “the wide sea areas west of the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, and the Philippine islands,” not to mention China’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and Chinese-claimed territories in the South China Sea. To Liu, then, the island chain not only set operational parameters for the PLA Navy but also defined where China’s uppermost economic and security interests lay in the maritime realm. Like Mahan, Liu clearly thought in grand-strategic terms about the sea.
Islands, Islands Everywhere
The debate over the island chain has moved on since the days of Liu Huaqing. In a comprehensive survey of China’s maritime geography titled Island Chain Surrounding China, Liu Baoyin and Yang Xiaomei formally define the first island chain as an “island belt” connecting the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippine archipelago, and the Greater Sunda Islands. This “crescent-shaped island chain is interlocked along our nation’s coastal areas,” the two authors note, adding that “this geographic conformation whereby an island chain separates a continent from an ocean is the only one of its kind in the world.” These islands in turn border a series of straits and channels through which Chinese mariners must pass to reach the world’s oceans. Liu and Yang list twenty-two straits and channels—from the Soya Strait to the north to the Palawan Strait to the south—that they consider critical to China’s national security and economic development.
Yu Kaijin, Li Guangsuo, and Cao Yongheng, naval combat-systems engineers from the Marine Design and Research Institute, view the island chain as aggravating the threat to China. First, the major straits and channels along the first island chain are under the control of other states. China’s seaborne trade is susceptible to blockade at critical choke points as a consequence. The commercial access that constitutes the purpose of sea power and propels maritime strategy is in peril close to home. Second, the island chain demarcates China’s claims to territory and natural resources. The continental shelf and the waters above contain natural resources China and other claimants covet. Maritime territorial disputes with neighboring countries, moreover, simmer within or near the island chain. Third, the mainland’s proximity to the island chain exposes China’s coastal cities to long-range, precision-strike weapons emplaced along the archipelago. The authors conclude, “Our maritime frontiers lack strategic depth, permitting our nation’s economically advanced regions along the coast to directly face enemy threats.”
It should come as little surprise, then, that geopolitically minded Chinese strategists see an island barricade obstructing access to the ocean when they gaze seaward. In their eyes, the first island chain compromises the mainland’s long coastline and bountiful harbors by restricting China’s nautical endeavors. Writing in China Military Science, Senior Captain Feng Liang and Commander Duan Tingzhi of the Naval Command College depict the apparent island encirclement of China in graphic terms. They proclaim that “these islands obstruct China’s reach to the sea.… The partially sealed-off nature of China’s maritime region has clearly brought about negative effects in China’s maritime security…. Because of geography’s nature, China can be easily blockaded and cut off from the sea, and Chinese coastal defense forces are difficult to concentrate.”
Major General Peng Guangqian of the AMS agrees, lamenting that “even though our nation is a great littoral power, the sea areas surrounding our nation are either sealed off or semi–sealed off…. This has further added strategic pressure from the seas upon China while increasing the difficulty and complexity of China’s maritime defense.” Interestingly, Senior Colonel Wang Chuanyou likens China’s geostrategic position to Germany’s during the two world wars. Wang maintains that the British Isles, Orkney Islands, and Shetland Islands constitute a mini-island chain across the North Sea. If fortified by a hostile power, they block German egress into the Atlantic.
Like many Chinese strategists, Wang sifts through history for insight into China’s maritime geography. Lin Hongyu, a scholar at the China University of International Relations, offers an even more pessimistic—if not fatalistic—assessment of the nation’s plight:
From the perspective of the geostrategic environment, China today suffers from the harshest global geopolitical security situation among the great powers. In particular, China’s eastward oceanic geostrategic structure is abnormally complex and unfavorable. With a long coastline facing eastward to the sea, China is an oceanic great power. Yet, it is also a weak sea power that “has access to the seas but not the oceans.” This is because countries and regions with different political systems and ideologies obstruct the strategic corridors to the oceans. The very narrow strategic sea lanes can easily be controlled by others. To overcome this dilemma, China must develop a strategic plan to shatter the first island chain.
Lin sees the first island chain as depriving China of its full maritime potential. The author’s reference to ideology, furthermore, reflects deep discomfort that democracies control the first island chain. Lin may also be obliquely referring to allied and semiallied ties joining Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines to the United States, a democratic great power intent on advancing its values in Asia. Lin and like-minded strategists long to break out of this nautical cordon.
Hu Bo of Peking University presents a sophisticated interpretation of the islands’ strategic significance to China. He believes China must amass the capacity to dictate events in the bodies of water bounded by the first island chain, namely the Bohai, Yellow, East, and South China Seas—expanses Chinese dub the “near seas.” To him, Chinese control over the near seas would bolster China’s strategic superiority in sovereignty disputes over Taiwan, the Senkakus, and the Spratlys. It would ease China’s psychology of insecurity about its maritime periphery, extend China’s buffer zone, and embolden Beijing to stand up to hostile powers. Hu shares the concern of others documented here that the occupants of the first island chain could threaten China: “The United States, Japan, and other countries control virtually all the islands in the western Pacific. Moreover, they have used these islands as forward bases to construct a three-dimensional superior land-sea-air-space power to deter and contain China. Strategically, China is on the defensive. And because China’s economic, political, and cultural centers are located along the eastern coastal regions, China lacks the necessary strategic depth to cope with maritime threats.”
Hu takes a geoeconomic view, portraying the configuration of power along the first island chain as a hazard to China’s economic security. To the island powers, the near seas are a highway leading to China’s seaboard. To China, these same waters constitute a critical intermediate zone where approaching threats can be met and defeated. For these reasons Hu considers the security of the near seas a “core oceanic interest” for China. He defines core interests as those that impinge on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, on the CCP’s survival, or on the nation’s development and social stability. Alternatively, some interests command great strategic or global importance. Either way, concludes Hu, China must use force to defend core interests should the leadership deem it necessary.
Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying view the first island chain as part of a far larger strategic architecture overseen by the United States. To them, the first island chain meanders southward from the Aleutians through Japan, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Indonesian archipelago, running roughly parallel to the Chinese shoreline. A second island chain stretches southward from Japan through the Ogasawara, Volcano, Mariana, Yap, and Palau Islands, terminating at Indonesia’s Maluku Islands. A third island chain, maintain Shi and Li, starts from the Aleutians in the north and extends south through Hawaii. It ends somewhere in the southwest Pacific, perhaps as far south as New Zealand.
The first, second, and third island chains pass through concentrations of U.S. military power in Northeast Asia, on Guam, and on Oahu, respectively. Collectively they manifest American forward presence, alliance commitments, operational command of forces, and power-projection capabilities—in other words, the military power at Washington’s disposal to manage events in Asia and beyond. Shi and Li perceive U.S. bases and access agreements with host nations as existing in mutually supporting clusters. They see installations in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and Guam as a single unit, while facilities in Australia, Hawaii, and Alaska constitute the strategic rear area for U.S. forces.
This interpretation of the American military posture in the Asia-Pacific conveys the image of concentric rings of bases rippling out from North America toward China. Accordingly, Chinese government mouthpieces routinely insist that U.S. leaders remain prisoners of a Cold War mentality. Obsolescent thinking or simple malice biases the United States to contain China. In other words, the island-chain concept expresses deep Chinese misgivings toward the United States and its alliance system in Asia. And because Beijing conceives of the island chains as siege lines obstructing China’s access to the common, their existence pits rival great powers against each other in a geostrategic struggle.