05 February 2016

Why Islands Still Matter in Asia: The Enduring Significance of the Pacific “Island Chains”

Andrew S. Erickson and Joel Wuthnow, “Why Islands Still Matter in Asia: The Enduring Significance of the Pacific ‘Island Chains’,” The National Interest, 5 February 2016.

The Western Pacific “island chains” are a persistent feature of Asia’s maritime geography. While their underlying fundaments remain constant, their specific strategic importance has evolved over time. Different major powers have thus interpreted, then re-interpreted and re-evaluated, the value of particular islands, the role they play in national military strategy, and their operational significance in a warfighting context. Chinese naval strategists such as former naval commander Admiral Liu Huaqing have devoted considerable attention to the island chains since the mid-1980s, examining how and where the island chains can hinder or support China’s maritime goals. Yet Chinese strategists are hardly unique in their efforts—military theorists and planners from Germany, Japan and the United States have all pondered the geopolitics of the islands and archipelagos of the Western Pacific, during both peacetime and wartime. To understand the progression of Chinese views, and more recent debates among U.S., Japanese and Chinese strategists, we must trace this lineage of strategic ideas that stretches back more than a century.  

Foreign Imperial Origins

The earliest known inklings of island chain-related concepts are intertwined with imperial Germany’s Pacific involvement at the turn of the twentieth century, just as the United States was taking possession of Spain’s previous colonial Pacific territories of Guam and the Philippines. Germany’s tenure as a Pacific colonial power—having acquired the Mariana Islands; and the Caroline Islands, including Palau; from Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898—coincided with the early writing career of Major General Karl Ernst Haushofer. Serving as a military attaché to Japan from 1908 to 1910, Haushofer was preoccupied with the geopolitics of the Pacific, penning several books on the subject. He regarded the “offshore island arcs” of what he termed the “Indo-Pacific realm” as important geopolitical features providing a useful “protective veil” sheltering continental powers such as China and India.

Japan, for its part, was already a major Pacific sea power at the turn of the twentieth century, having defeated the Chinese Navy and seized Taiwan in 1895. As its maritime strength increased, Tokyo gave careful attention to the strategic value of different islands and archipelagos in the Western Pacific. During World War I, a Japanese expeditionary force wrested control over several Micronesian islands from imperial Germany. These were not only useful stepping stones in Japan’s “southward turn,” focused on exploiting Southeast Asia’s economic and natural resources, but also served as a valuable strategic buffer. In particular, control over Micronesia (chiefly the Mariana, Marshall, and Caroline islands; the last, notably, including Palau) was seen as a hedge against the possibility that the United States would use its bases in Guam and on the Philippines to threaten Japan in a future conflict.

U.S. military theorist Milan Vego explains how Japan took steps to solidify its control over Micronesian islands in the decades following World War I. Vego observes that the Japanese government embarked on a significant settlement and economic campaign during the 1920s and 1930s. The number of Japanese settlers on the islands eventually outnumbered the native islanders. In 1935, Vego notes, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations and its islands became “closed territories,” with Westerners restricted from entry.

At the outset of World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy engaged in a series of lightning-fast island seizure operations, landings, and fortifications. This included operations to seize both Guam and Wake Island from the United States. During the middle of the war, Japanese forces sought control over other islands within the Second and Third Island Chains, including the Solomon Islands and as far as the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. Although many islands formerly in Japanese possession passed to the United States the Soviet Union as a result of the war, Japan eventually regained control over key components of the First and Second island chains, including the Ryukyu and the Ogasawara islands. …


Christopher P. Cavas, “Powers Jockey for Pacific Island Chain Influence,” Defense News, 1 February 2016.

Pacific Island Chains Measure Regional Influence

The extensive chains of Pacific islands ringing China have been described as a wall, a barrier to be breached by an attacker or strengthened by a defender. They are seen as springboards, potential bases for operations to attack or invade others in the region. In a territorial sense, they are benchmarks marking the extent of a country’s influence.

“It’s truly a case of where you stand. Perspective is shaped by one’s geographic and geostrategic position,” said Andrew Erickson, a professor with the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College.

“Barriers is a very Chinese perspective,” said Erickson. “It reflects a concern that foreign military facilities based on the islands may impede or threaten China’s efforts or influence.” …

“Many Chinese writings express concerns that the chains can be used as springboards for projection and forces against China. But some sources imagine future contingencies where China itself might have growing influence and presence, with Taiwan being most relevant in that regard,” Erickson said.

“Benchmarks speak to the idea that as China increasingly engages in blue-water operations and limited forms of power projection, having more ships through the first island chain offers a set of milestones by which the People’s Liberation Army Navy – or PLAN – can measure its growing presence and capabilities.”

Senior officials and analysts in the West frequently refer to the first and second island chains ringing China to describe both the region’s geography and predict Chinese intentions. Erickson, in a new paper co-authored with Joel Wuthnow of the National Defense University and published in The China Quarterly, carried out a comprehensive, five-year examination of Chinese literature to determine how mainland China views the chains. He reported that the idea originated in the west during the Cold War – Chinese sources often credit 1950s US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as the concept’s progenitor.

But the notion, Erickson pointed out, isn’t new – it derives from the region’s physical characteristics. Still, the chains have risen in political thinking to become benchmarks that in many ways define the field of play as China’s regional maritime power expands.

“You won’t find in a single authoritative source a precise official consensus on what the chains mean,” Erickson said. “But if you look at a variety of Chinese sources you see a larger pattern that speaks to Chinese concerns about foreign sources having influence over the region and over outstanding disputes. This is not a figment of China’s geostrategic imagination.” …

“It looks like we’re seeing a broad-based Chinese effort to become familiar with a variety of different ways to get through the island chains,” Erickson noted. “It’s not hard to imagine that China would want to develop experience with as many different ways as possible to get through the chains.”

China’s development of short-range ballistic missiles is also related to its thinking about the first island chain, Erickson said.

“The vast majority of those weapons appear targeted at Taiwan, which many Chinese authorities see as a key point in the first island chain,” he said. “The vast majority of the missiles I’ve mentioned are designed to target very specific land bases. It’s only very recently that we see a small but growing portion of conventional ballistic missiles developed with the intent of being able to threaten US and perhaps allied naval vessels.”

… “The vast majority of those missiles having the right range to appear to be targeted at various US and allied military bases in the region, almost all of which are somewhere along the first island chain.”

Subtle differences in how the US and China view the chains are evident, Erickson said, in maps produced by the US Defense Department and the Chinese Navy. The Pentagon map, he noted, “doesn’t show South Korea as part of the chain, but the PLAN book very much does show it as belonging to the first island chain.” …

“I don’t think the DoD map is the best possible expression about how the Chinese Navy thinks about the chains – the PLAN map is,” he noted. “This is a case of differences in nuance, not in fundamental differences. I don’t think DoD has gotten this wrong, it’s just a different focus.”

China’s recently aggressive island-building strategy, Erickson observed, is related to the springboard and barrier concepts.

“The chain traditionally has made use of existing geography, but you could argue that China is now making its own island chain – as a springboard for itself and to create a barrier to others,” Erickson said. “I haven’t yet seen Chinese sources that refer to this artificial island construction development as an island chain type thing, but if we look at it conceptually we’re really talking about similar things. That’s one reason I think there’s so much US, regional and allied concern about Chinese activities in the South China Sea.”

Among countries in the region, Russia and Korea are less involved with island chain concepts. “Russia has bigger geostrategic problems to worry about,” Erickson said, while South Korea “by necessity is so focused on security threats from the north that that is the fundamental factor affecting their nation’s geostrategic orientation.” …

“In many ways Japan is as central to island chain thinking as one can get,” Erickson said. “Japan constitutes the largest portion of the first and second chains as any other nation. It is a nation of more than 6,000 islands. It is as close to a natural sea power as a nation can get.”

Before World War II, Japan also described the western Pacific in island chain terms.

“Back when imperial Japan was trying to gain control of the first, second and even a third chain – the Aleutians – there was a concern that if Japan didn’t control the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii the Americans would, to Japan’s geostrategic detriment,” said Erickson. “At the outset of World War II, Japan made an extraordinary effort to use part of the chains as a springboard, and they were indeed benchmarks of Japanese military progress. That was only halted then the US turned island-hopping in the other direction.”

“Today, Japan is concerned about Chinese attempts to influence and control areas and to develop weapon systems vis-a-vis these island chains,” Erickson added. “And there’s a lot of Japanese concern about ongoing Chinese efforts to penetrate the chains using increasingly powerful and complex groups of naval vessels. I think Japan feels very much connected to these island chains. As China looks to the chains and aspires to do things, I think Japan feels very targeted by that, it feels it very acutely.” …

“Many Chinese sources emphasize their view of Taiwan’s status as a key node on the first island chain,” Erickson said. “Some Chinese sources see this not only as a springboard against mainland China, but a number of sources express aspirations of eventually [bringing the island] under mainland control, perhaps in a very robust fashion that would allow for some form of Chinese-controlled military facilities. We see discussion of ports, particularly on the east coast of Taiwan, allowing for China to conclusively break out of the confines of the first island chain once and for all.”

“I see no other part of an island chain that is really in the category of what some Chinese strategists ultimately aspire to control and own themselves,” Erickson said. “That definitely sets Taiwan apart.”

And while most attention is focused on the first island chain running south along the eastern edge of the South China Sea, the significance of the second chain, which includes the US territory of Guam, could grow.

“A number of Chinese sources see this as a rear staging area for US and allied forces,” Erickson said.

“But the second island chain will grow in China’s geostrategic thinking. As China continues to send naval forces afield, it will be a benchmark.”

Over time, he added, “China can do more to hold Guam and other parts of the second island chain at risk.”


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. …