Controlling the First Island Chain: How to Ensure China Does Not Dominate the Pacific?

If you have any doubt that the first island chain represents the focal point of strategy, counter-strategy, and counter-strategy in the Western Pacific, take a look at recent developments in Tokyo and Beijing. Exhibit A: Japan Ministry of Defense published Japan Defense 2022an official statement in which the ministry takes stock of Japan’s strategic environment and outlines how it intends to manage it.

Its main objective: deterrence.

Preparing for battle along the Ryukyus chain is an important part of deterrence for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi. In doing so, he proclaims Japan Defense 2022, will make “opponents realize that hurting Japan would be difficult and consequential.” If China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lacks the military capability to seize the islands along the Ryukyu Island chain, or if it cannot seize them at a worthwhile cost to Beijing, then the Chinese Communist Party tycoons should give up trying.

That’s Deterrence 101. And that’s why, in the words of the strategy document, Tokyo is budgeting for “an integrated ‘Defence Strengthening Acceleration Package’.” In other words, the Kishida government is in a hurry to prepare Japan’s defenses. And a good thing too.

Japan Defense 2022 sketches (scroll down to page 4) one of the best practical representations of how the island chain defense works you will see. It involves stationing compact units of the Japan Air and Ground Self-Defense Force along the Ryukyus chain. Armed with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, ground force units will strive to deny attacking PLA forces access to the seas and skies adjacent to the islands, and thus to the islands themselves. Air and ground forces will fight alongside Maritime Self-Defense Force units that prowl the nearby waters, ready to pummel hostile ships and aircraft.

The product of their labor: an imposing joint defense capable of denying the PLA access to Japanese territory. Area and access denial is not just a Chinese thing.

This defensive scheme is based on the martial logic eloquently explained by the German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke over a century ago. Channeling Carl von Clausewitz (and as interpreted by Julian Corbett), Moltke observed that holding something is easier than taking it. Tactical defense, that is, represents the strongest form of warfare. That being the case, the best strategy for a competitor pursuing strategic defense is to seize an undefended or lightly defended parcel of land, or some other object that he covets. He makes the opening move, waging a cheap tactical offense. Once installed in that place, he defends it. He returns to tactical defense in the service of strategically defensive ends.

In strategy as in legal matters, possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Japan is applying Moltke’s logic in peacetime. You can do this at low cost and risk since you already own the disputed land. By fortifying the Ryukyu Archipelago, the Self-Defense Forces challenged their Chinese opponents to cross hundreds of miles of water under fire before attempting an opposing amphibious assault, one of the most arduous feats known to the military. This proactive approach marks a welcome departure from previous Japanese strategic documents, which spoke of retaking islands after they fell to China.

That more passive approach might have lost some or all of Japan’s Moltkean advantages.

While homeland defense is the main benefit Tokyo’s spies derive from deploying forces throughout the southwestern islands, denial of access provides another boon to Japan and its main ally, the United States. That is to say, it bottles up sizable segments of the PLA Navy within China’s seas, not to mention China’s merchant fleet. Use sea and air power to close off the Ryukyu Straits, Tsushima Strait, and Taiwan Strait to air and sea traffic, and you may do some military and economic damage to China. This does not go unnoticed by the EPL commanders or their political masters. It is certainly part of why they are so obsessed with conquering Taiwan. Control of the island would give them control of both sides of the strait, reinforcing their efforts to keep that passage open in times of war.

Without such control, the PLA Navy fleet could find itself fragmented between north and south.

And the logic of island chain containment could also apply to southern Taiwan, though the diplomatic dimension becomes risky along the southern arc of the first island chain, made up primarily of the Philippine Islands and Indonesia. Think about it. No Chinese ports flank the first island chain, which stretches south and west to the Straits of Malacca. The defenses placed along the chain of islands could consolidate an unbreakable barrier to Chinese maritime movement. But again, convincing Manila or Jakarta to rally behind such a scheme could prove galling. They see value in good relations with China, mainly for economic reasons, and thus blanch at the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčaffronting their giant neighbor.

However, the military logic of the island chain defense remains. The visuals in Japan Defense 2022 convey this logic vividly. A well-crafted image speaks more than a thousand words.

Exhibit B: Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party-affiliated tabloid global times reported, with his usual bravado, that the PLA Navy leadership expects to declare two of its large Type 055 guided missile destroyers fully battle-ready by the end of the year. The destroyers, classified as cruisers in the West, will undertake “offshore operations to break up the island chain, such as circling Japan and patrolling near Alaska.”

Three points. First, it’s easy to lie to yourself or others with maps, just like with stats. Mental maps commonly distort cartographic reality. What Japan Defense 2022 notes, deployments along the Ryukyus are a deterrent in times of peace. By definition, no one is fighting anyone in peacetime. The Self-Defense Forces (and their US allies, notably the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force) intend to deploy in peacetime to alert the PLA that allies could deny access to the islands and close the straits. in times of war.

So he global times scribes engage in bragging. There is no chain to break in times of peace; no one will obstruct the PLA Navy’s access to the Pacific. There are simply maps with lines inscribed on them to represent a wartime concept of operations. Making those lines solid implies something false. To use a football analogy, on the field of play it would be easy to break into an opposing team’s backfield if their burly linemen made no effort to block you. Being idle says little about how the competition would play out at game time.

Two, if war broke out while Type 055s or other units were operating out of the first island chain, they would not be able to return home as long as the Allied barricade held. For a time, the ships could provide some combat value by operating to the east of the island chain, helping to mount a 360-degree assault against the island’s defenders. But sending warships beyond the island chain in tense peacetime would be an extremely risky practice for Beijing. Where would their logistical support come from if the allies closed the strait with them out? Without regular stocks of fuel, ammunition, and supplies, the Chinese special forces would wither in no time.

Now, if the Type 055s could pierce through a defended island chain, gaining access to the wide Pacific, after the global times I would have something to brag about. But that is doubtful. And the more doubtful Japan and the United States can do it, the better their prospects for deterrence.

So, three, there is little reason for Japan, its allies, or its friends to cringe at the sight of PLA Navy assets operating in the wide Pacific. Showing up off your adversary’s shores was a daily routine during the Cold War, as sailors of increasingly graying years can attest. Advanced deployments stretch out your adversary while casting doubt on what you might do if cold competition turns hot. Such demos promise to become standard again during whatever we call the strategic competition we find ourselves in now.

But there is less reason to worry than it seems when PLA Navy warships show up east of Japan or off Alaska.

The Japanese cartographers are not helping at all. Like his Chinese counterparts, his manual work sometimes gives false impressions. Japanese authorities closely monitor Chinese (and Russian) naval movements. When plotted on the map as solid lines, the courses charted by hostile planes and ships look like ramen noodles spilling into the western Pacific. Or, less amusingly, they resemble ropes that surround and constrain Japan. Such images could exacerbate anxiety among Japanese political leaders, the military, and especially the general population.

us navy

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Oct. 19, 2021) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69), rear, and the Akizuki-class destroyer JS Akizuki (DD 115) transit from the Sea Force of Japan Self Defense Force (JMSDF) South China Sea in formation. Milius is assigned to Commander, Task Force (CTF) 71/Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15, the largest forward-deployed DESRON in the Navy and the primary surface force in the U.S. 7th Fleet. (Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Christine Montgomery) 211019-N-TC847-1020

That is what Beijing is counting on when it attempts such shows of force. But it is important to keep them in perspective. These are not solid barriers. They simply indicate the route that a ship or plane followed while transiting from point A to point B. Such maps denote a transitory presence in the vicinity of Japan, as opposed to the relatively firm barrier that manifests itself in a first fortified island chain. Therefore, the Japanese should interpret the images with a skeptical eye and should take heart. They retain the geographical advantage over China in a seaborne arms contest. If they take advantage of that advantage effectively, they still have a good chance of deterring or nullifying Chinese misadventures.

Check your mental map of the region accordingly and prepare.

Expert Biography: A contributing editor from 1945 writing in his own capacity, Dr. James Holmes holds the JC Wylie Chair in Maritime Strategy at the US Naval War College and served on the faculty of the School of Public and International Affairs from the University of Georgia. A former US Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last artillery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger during the first Gulf War in 1991. He received the Foundation Award from the Naval War College in 1994, meaning he graduated top of his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, a 2010 Best Book of the Atlantic Monthly, and a fixture on the Navy’s professional reading list. General James Mattis considers it “problematic.” The opinions expressed here are his alone. Holmes also writes on the Naval Diplomat blog.

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