21 January 2016

“Barriers, Springboards and Benchmarks: China Conceptualizes the Pacific ‘Island Chains’”—FirstView Version of Article Now Available on The China Quarterly Website

Andrew S. Erickson and Joel Wuthnow, “Barriers, Springboards and Benchmarks: China Conceptualizes the Pacific ‘Island Chains’,” The China Quarterly, available on CJO 2016 doi:10.1017/S0305741016000011; published online by Cambridge University Press 21 January 2016.   

A FirstView version of the forthcoming article online may be accessed at http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0305741016000011.

Click here to read PDF version.

This FirstView version of the article, also know as a final Version of Record (VoR), hereby replaces the Accepted Manuscript (AM) [a preliminary version of the article], the contents of which differ slightly and which is now obsolete. Henceforth, any formal citations and page numbers should quote and otherwise reference only the VoR listed above. Thank you for your understanding!

Barriers, Springboards and Benchmarks: China Conceptualizes the Pacific “Island Chains”

Andrew S. Erickson, US Naval War College, Newport, RI; and Joel Wuthnow, US National Defense University, Washington, DC


US government reports describe Chinese-conceived “island chains” in the Western Pacific as narrow demarcations for Chinese “counter-intervention” operations to defeat US and allied forces in altercations over contested territorial claims. The sparse scholarship available does little to contest this excessively myopic assertion. Yet, further examination reveals meaningful differences that can greatly enhance an understanding of Chinese views of the “island chains” concept, and with it important aspects of China’s efforts to develop as a maritime power. Long before China had a navy or naval strategists worthy of the name, the concept had originated and been developed for decades by previous great powers vying for Asia-Pacific influence. Today, China’s own authoritative interpretations are flexible, nuanced and multifaceted – befitting the multiple and sometimes contradictory factors with which Beijing must contend in managing its meteoric maritime rise. These include the growing importance of sea lane security at increasing distances and levels of operational intensity.


美国政府报告把中国设想的西太平洋 “岛链” 概念描述为中国军队为在有关领土争端的 “反干涉”作战中试图打败美国和盟国部队而设立的狭窄的界线。寥寥无几的相关研究对这个过于短视的看法也没有提出不同意见。然而, 进一步的分析却发现此概念有迥然不同的含义。这些含义能大大增强我们对中国为发展成为一个海洋大国所做出的努力的理解。这个概念是在中国有一个现代的海军或海军战略家之前由其他有影响力的大国为争夺亚太地区的影响力而发展起来的。如今, 中国对此概念的权威解释显示出其灵活性, 微妙性和多面性。这些解释特征恰恰能与北京在管理其海上崛起过程中许多有时是相互矛盾的因素相适应。这些因素包括由于不断增大距离和活动强度所导致的海上通道安全日益增长的重要性。


China; island chain; strategy; military; maritime; navy


中国; 岛链; 战略; 军事; 海事; 海军


*  These are the authors’ personal views, and not those of their respective institutions. For comments on earlier drafts, the authors thank Dennis Blasko, M. Taylor Fravel, Ryan D. Martinson, Ivan Rasmussen, Al Willner, and three anonymous reviewers.


Outside observers naturally seek to understand the geostrategic basis for China’s rapid maritime development. Accordingly, US scholarship and government documents regularly make assertions about Chinese military views of Western Pacific “island chains” (daolian 岛链). In many cases, the argument is that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) uses the island chains as benchmarks for a potential “counter-intervention” campaign directed against US and allied forces in the region. However, these analyses rarely document evidence from PLA sources. This raises important questions: how do Chinese strategists themselves define “island chains,” and how do they assess them operationally and strategically?

Drawing on manifold underutilized Chinese sources, we contend that the island chains concept is foreign in origin but adopted and reinterpreted in China, and that authoritative Chinese interpretations are flexible, nuanced and multifaceted. Geographically, Chinese writings offer varying definitions of the island chains, with some considerably more expansive than others. More importantly, Chinese sources offer diverse perspectives on the island chains’ operational and strategic significance. In particular, various Chinese authors assert that the island chains are (1) barriers that China must penetrate to achieve freedom of manoeuvre in the maritime domain; (2) springboards for power projection by whomever controls a given island chain; and (3) benchmarks for the advancement of Chinese maritime and air force projection in the Asia-Pacific. In each of these respects, the discourse on the island chains provides valuable insight into how the PLA is thinking about the challenges and opportunities facing China as it seeks to become a maritime power.

This article is organized into five sections. The first discusses foreign analyses of the concept of island chains, and suggests that many of these sources focus rigidly on counter-intervention issues. The following section addresses the origins and historical significance of the island chains concept. The article then examines Chinese views of the geographic attributes of the island chains before considering how Chinese military analysts interpret their operational and strategic significance. The final section discusses the implications for China’s naval development, and for that of the US and its allies. …