Island Chain Strategy: Steps to Checkmate China

By Lt Col JS Sodhi (retired)

Sun Tzu, a famous Chinese general and the words of a great military leader spoken centuries ago “Strategy without tactics is the slowest way to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat” are now taming China as the United States wage a blitzkrieg in its island chain strategy.

The Island Chain Strategy was formulated in 1951 by John Foster Dulles, a visionary foreign affairs expert who enumerated the need to contain the former USSR and China with a series of naval bases in the Western Pacific region to restrict maritime access to these two countries.

This strategy did not gain much traction during the Cold War, but after the breakup of the USSR into 15 countries on December 26, 1991, the island chain strategy gained momentum to contain China, whose growing economic prowess and his desire for hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region was no open secret.

An important dimension of this strategy is the strategic position and importance of Taiwan, which China wants to conquer and bring back to its folds. Chinese President Xi Jinping has pointed out that reunification with Taiwan must happen. And the use of armed forces to achieve this stated objective is not excluded. On January 2, 2019, Xi Jinping announced that Taiwan would be recaptured by 2050.

The strategy encompasses three island chains – the First Island Chain, the Second Island Chain and the Third Island Chain, all three located in the Pacific Ocean.

Lately, it has been proposed to also create a fourth and a fifth chain of islands in the Indian Ocean. Thus, the five island chains of the island chain strategy would defeat China and contain its dreams of control over the Indo-Pacific region.

The first island chain includes the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the northwest of the Philippines and ends in Borneo. This range is also the first line of defense and serves as the maritime border between the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. Within this chain are the Bashi Channel and the Miyako Strait which are critical bottlenecks for China.

The second island chain includes the Bonin Islands, Volcano Islands, Mariana Islands, western Caroline Islands, and western New Guinea. This chain is the eastern maritime border of the Philippine Sea. The visit of the US Secretary of Defense to the small nation of Palau in August 2020 underlines the importance given to this chain. The United States has Free Association Agreements (COFAs) with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia; all located in this chain, exceeds the interest of the United States for this chain.

The third island chain refers to the Aleutian Islands which cross the center of the Pacific Ocean through the Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa and Fiji, culminating in New Zealand. In this chain New Zealand-Tonga-Hawaii plays an important role. Tonga, a small nation with a vast exclusive economic zone of 676,401 square kilometers and located 2,330 kilometers from New Zealand and 5,000 kilometers from Hawaii, requires special attention as it is a fertile region for Chinese investments and interests.

The fourth island chain proposes to have Lakshadweep Islands, Maldives, Diego Garcia with Gwadar and Hambantota in Pakistan and Sri Lanka respectively. Although China has succeeded in taking control of the ports of Gwadar and Hambantota, but with the domestic unrest in Pakistan and Sri Lanka due to the Chinese debt trap and other reasons, the United States still has eyes firmly fixed on these two ports and looking for an opportune moment to wrest them from the Chinese grip.

The fifth island chain is expected to originate from Camp Lemonnier in the Gulf of Aden, around the Horn of Africa, along the East African coast, through the Mozambique Channel to South Africa in the aim of encircling the Chinese naval bases of Doraleh and Djibouti.

Although the fourth and fifth island chains are proposals and have yet to be implemented, but with China going aggressively with its Seat Belt Initiative (BRI) and having security pacts with the Solomon Islands and the strategically located Vanuatu Islands, now is the time to bring the fourth and fifth island chains to fruition.

There can be no better quote to sum up island chain strategy than Robert J Mckain’s quip “Strategic planning will help you fully discover your available options, prioritize them, and define the methods for reach them”.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran of the Corps of Engineers, an alumnus of NDA, Khadakwasla and IIT Kanpur. He tweets and Koos at @JassiSodhi24. Opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect position or policy official of Financial express online. Reproduction of this content without permission is prohibited.)

Lynn A. Saleh