Luzon Strait: A Gap in the Chain
Chinese commentators devote the vast majority of their attention to the northern segment of the first island chain. They seldom describe the Philippine archipelago in ominous geostrategic terms. Why not? For one thing, China’s coastal economic centers and military bases do not directly face the southern, more distant portion of the island barrier. The southern part of the archipelago represents a minor worry at most. For another, Manila lacks the martial wherewithal to challenge China’s movements even in Philippine littorals. But the most important reason Chinese strategists neglect the southern reaches is because they have fixed their gaze on the Luzon Strait, a waterway to the Philippines’ immediate north.
The Luzon Strait constitutes the passageway to and from the South China Sea that Chinese analysts find most promising. The strait is home to the Bashi Channel, an undersea canyon separating Taiwan from the Batanes Islands. The channel is one of the widest and deepest of the narrow seas piercing the first island chain. Most of the waters southeast of the channel, where it opens into the Pacific Ocean, exceed one thousand meters in depth. This maritime junction between the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea thus looks like an optimal point for PLA Navy submarines to break out of the China seas. They can transit the strait underwater and disappear into the Pacific depths almost immediately afterward.
The Luzon Strait is particularly well suited for Chinese submarine operations owing to its unique meteorological and oceanographic characteristics. Antisubmarine warfare (ASW) is a difficult art in the best of circumstances—let alone the worst—and the Luzon Strait is home to some of the worst. Atrocious weather conditions afflict the area, severely degrading airborne efforts to hunt subs while boosting PLAN boats’ chances of eluding detection. Furthermore, a confluence of undersea environmental factors peculiar to the strait helps submarines maximize their stealth. According to Du Pengcheng and Hu Chengjun of the Navy Submarine Academy, the kuroshio—a powerful oceanic current that flows through the Luzon Strait and skirts the east coasts of Taiwan, the Ryukyus, and Kyushu—is particularly conducive to sonar-reflecting undersea thermal layers. Thermal layers remain thick, wide, and stable year-round in the Luzon Strait’s deep waters. Deftly handled, subs can hide beneath these “thermoclines,” concealing themselves from enemy warships, aircraft, and submarines. Submarine skippers familiar with local waters could exploit favorable conditions to slip out of the island chain unnoticed.
Consequently, to Modern Navy contributor Yu Fengliu, the Luzon Strait represents “a maritime area with extremely high economic, military, and political value worth the weight in gold, a nautical zone boasting important strategic meaning in the western Pacific, and also a channel for China to go past the first island chain worthy of close attention.” Because the strait is the largest passage through the first island chain and presents a problematic environment for U.S. Navy sub hunters, Yu contends that Chinese air and naval assets could sortie independently through the strait without shore-based air cover. Such confidence speaks volumes about the strategic significance of Sanya, the sprawling naval complex on Hainan Island. Boats based there would find the Luzon Strait a convenient exit into the Pacific Ocean.
Geostrategy and Chinese Sea Power
Sea-power theory again furnishes a sure guide to evaluating the interplay among geography, strategy, and China’s maritime outlook and how this nexus shapes Beijing’s assessment of its nautical surroundings. We can revisit Mahan’s definition of sea power as commerce, ships, and bases while applying it fruitfully to the nations inhabiting the first island chain.
Just as the geography of production, distribution, and consumption helps explain China’s economic rise and its turn to the seas, that geography also reveals the engines that propelled past economic miracles in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei led the way in Asia, tapping into the transformative power of the U.S.-led liberal economic order. From China’s perspective, the island states’ “comprehensive national power”—a Chinese concept that encompasses economic strength, technological prowess, per capita productivity, sociopolitical cohesion, and myriad other attributes—makes them a formidable cluster of strategic competitors.
At the same time, the naval dimension of Mahanian sea power—the defense-industrial complex, warships, and bases—illuminates the architecture of military power along the first island chain. The United States enjoys access to major naval bases and shore-based facilities there. It has stationed one of the world’s great expeditionary fleets, the Seventh Fleet, in Japan and sometimes operates the U.S.-based Third Fleet in Asia as well. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan possess some of the world’s most advanced industries and shipyards. These shipyards employ highly skilled individuals, many of whom work on behalf of the U.S. Navy.
The Japanese and South Korean navies deploy warships outfitted with the best sensors and weaponry the United States has to offer, and they exercise and train regularly with their American counterparts. The Taiwan Navy, while not at the technological forefront like its northerly neighbors, operates potent legacy U.S. platforms that could make trouble for the PLA Navy. Chinese analysts can only conclude that China faces an intensely competitive saltwater environment.
We wish to reiterate yet again that strategic geography is not destiny. Geography, like time, is neutral. It would be absurd to impute malign intent to inanimate geographic features. Conceptions of geography, in the form of physical and mental maps, are ultimately constructs of the human mind.62 People determine how they read, interpret, and make use of maps, not the other way around. Consequently, it is safe to say that island chains in and of themselves hold little menace. Rather, it is what people do with these geographic features that makes them forbidding. The claustrophobia many Chinese feel when they glance at the map stems not from inert terrain but from the political, social, historical, and strategic context pervading maritime Asia.
The Chinese writings reviewed here show that the island chain carries substantial historical baggage. It represents not just a reminder of American containment during the Cold War but also a physical manifestation of U.S. power projection today. American forces deployed to and launched from the first island chain have directly influenced events in Asia—often to the detriment of Chinese interests. Thus it comes as little shock that China’s strategic community remains leery of America’s military posture along the island chain. The real surprise would come if Beijing seemed indifferent to a superpower presence so close by.
Contentious history informs the skepticism of Chinese strategists. Think about what U.S. forces have done in Asian seas and skies since 1950. In the early months of the Korean War, American reinforcements flowed through Japan to halt and roll back North Korean advances down the peninsula. Expeditionary forces delivered by sea denied the Communists victory. China felt compelled to intervene at great sacrifice to stave off North Korea’s defeat. Perhaps most painful of all from China’s standpoint was that President Harry Truman interposed the Seventh Fleet between China and Taiwan, ending any hope China had of seizing Taiwan and virtually guaranteeing U.S.-China enmity during the first decades of the Cold War. The U.S. Navy subsequently undertook escort and patrol missions in support of Nationalist forces during the 1954 and 1958 Taiwan Strait crises. In other words, the first island chain administers a constant rebuke, signifying that China is neither whole nor complete nor the master of its fate without Taiwan. The island chain is an irritant transcribed onto the map.
Such encounters have continued intermittently for decades. In the 1960s, B-52 bombers staged bombing runs from Okinawa against North Vietnam, waging an aerial offensive from airfields at China’s doorstep. In 1995, to stop the hemorrhaging of U.S. forward-deployed forces in Asia during the heady days after the Cold War, Washington stabilized the U.S. regional presence by making a standing commitment of 100,000 military personnel to the island chain. There would be no withdrawal from Asia, even to save money and resources and thus claim a “peace dividend” from victory in the Cold War. Indeed, at the height of the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis, President Bill Clinton dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan as a show of force. Poignantly, it was the USS Independence—the U.S. Navy’s only permanently forward-deployed carrier—that helped telegraph American resolve in a crisis involving Taiwan independence. To many Chinese, then, the U.S. Navy and its basing arrangements along the island chain have thwarted national union ever since the founding of the People’s Republic.
Over the past decades, American reconnaissance and surveillance missions along the mainland coast—many of them launched from Japan—have become a major source of bilateral friction. China has long regarded such intelligence-gathering activities as unfriendly if not hostile. The PLA’s impressive military modernization has enabled Beijing to respond tangibly to U.S. naval and aviation operations, backing up its rhetorical objections with physical power. Hazardous encounters have ensued in international airspace and waters. Noteworthy incidents include an April 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft, harassment of a U.S. ocean-surveillance vessel by Chinese fishing trawlers and government ships in March 2009, a near collision between a U.S. Navy cruiser and a PLAN amphibious transport in November 2013, and numerous dangerous Chinese aerial intercepts of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. Close-quarters encounters have become commonplace.
The literature surveyed above shows that the island chain is not merely a geographic marker designating zones for Chinese naval planning and operations. The concept is far richer than its critics allow. The island chain serves as an analytical proxy for assessing (1) the state of American power and purpose in Asia; (2) the health of the U.S.-led regional order; (3) the durability of the postwar alliance system; (4) China’s choices as a hybrid land-sea power; (5) China’s quest for reunion with Taiwan; (6) China’s relative economic and strategic vulnerability; (7) the types of conflicts and military campaigns for which Chinese planners prepare; and, lastly, (8) how much room for maneuver the PLA Navy enjoys. Note that only the last index of Chinese maritime strategy is strictly naval in nature. The other—more pressing—matters of strategic import relate to China’s grand strategy in maritime Asia, or what we term the Mahanian logic of sea power and the maritime strategy to which it imparts substance and direction.
We return, then, to Mahan’s logic of maritime strategy and his grammar of maritime operations. What does China want, and how will China go about getting what it wants? The island-chain construct offers a framework for answering these vital questions. If China covets dominion in the near seas, then orchestrating a reconfiguration of power along the first island chain is probably a prerequisite for success. The correlation of forces on the transnational archipelago must shift in ways that accommodate China’s expanded interests and power, allowing Beijing to bend the islanders to its will. Whether China must compel the United States to draw down—or terminate altogether—U.S. commitments and resources to allies and friends on the first island chain to fulfill its ambitions remains unclear. If China concludes it must, it remains unclear how far back the United States must fall to satisfy China. And it remains unclear what form the regional order would take after an American pullback.
Another open question is how much would unification with Taiwan magnify China’s strategic leverage over its neighbors, particularly Japan. Whether reunion would satiate China’s ambitions or whet its appetite for more real estate is open to debate. Moreover, it is worth asking what expectations Chinese leaders would set for occupants of the first island chain in a post-American future. The regional order’s complexion would change considerably if Beijing settled for quiet deference, as opposed to demanding outright subservience. And it remains to be seen what kinds of—and how much—military and nonmilitary power China would need to ease its nagging, deep-seated insecurity about the island chain. Such grand-strategic questions are worth pondering, and sea-power theory helps analysts and practitioners of marine affairs ponder them.
The irony in all of this is that no one did more than the occupants of the first island chain, along with the United States, to readmit China to the international system after decades of Maoist self-isolation. While Chinese commentators are loath to admit it, China ranks among the greatest beneficiaries of the U.S.-led liberal order. China’s economic rise over the past three decades owes a great deal to the global system’s openness. And it was American and allied forces along the first island chain that supplied the international public goods—chiefly free seas for commerce—that underwrote this openness. Beijing long appeared content to free ride on U.S. and allied naval power. Those days seem to have passed.
Policing the sea was not the only service the island powers rendered. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States opened their markets to Chinese producers while providing the bulk of the foreign direct investment needed to launch China on its meteoric ascent. The very stakeholders in the current order that facilitates efforts to generate wealth along the mainland’s coast inflame China’s sense of insecurity. The dual character of China’s relationships with fellow Asian powers constitutes an enduring paradox of its rise.
The geography of production, distribution, and consumption has combined with Chinese perceptions of the first island chain to reinforce Beijing’s oceanic orientation. China’s economic success has drawn it toward the seas, begetting demands that China develop the means to protect its seaborne interests. As Beijing leans seaward, though, it finds itself bumping up against the first island chain, the geographic basis of American primacy in Asia. The gnawing sense that hostile powers could interrupt China’s nautical destiny lends urgency to Beijing’s effort to uphold maritime interests. China’s militancy in the near seas must be understood as a product of this complex, interactive process.
Geography informs policy decisions about how much attention and how many resources a nation should dedicate to manage events at a particular place on the globe or a nautical chart. In China’s case, geospatial imperatives indicate that Beijing must not only shoulder the burdens that come with sea power but must also balance constantly between priorities in the continental and maritime domains. Geography alone makes an inadequate guide to how China will shape its nautical rise. As Mahan notes, sea power is a conscious political choice. A society—elites and citizenry alike—must make that choice. And that choice determines the character of its maritime strategy. In short, strategy must respect the bounds imposed by geography, but those bounds afford people considerable latitude for strategic choice. China is no exception.
Even in an autocracy like China, policy makers must fashion a coherent case explaining why the country should put to sea and why society must expend scarce resources on seafaring, an inherently capital-intensive enterprise. Chinese elites, intellectuals, and strategists have crafted arguments that vow to deliver national greatness on the high seas. The Chinese Dream awaits.