Island Chains Everywhere

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Island Chains Everywhere

Some Chinese strategists see Hawaii as Asia’s ‘third island chain.’ What does this view say about US-China ties?

I write this comfortably ensconced in Asia’s ‘third island chain,’ a.k.a. the Hawaiian Islands. Who says Naval War College duty is all hardship?

At least some Chinese strategists think of Hawaii as an appendage of Asia rather than a geographic feature of the Pacific Ocean, placed closer to the Americas than to the Chinese coastline. The concept of first and second island chains is familiar to Asia specialists, but the concept of a third island chain, positioned only 2,400 miles from San Francisco, is a novel one. It appears on a map of the Pacific found in a recent translation of Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783—the same translation whose front cover blares, ‘Does China Need an Aircraft Carrier?’

For Hawaii to fit the island chain template, however, it would need to be (1) a very long series of islands that (2) runs north-south fairly close to Asian shores, (3) encloses the Asian mainland, and (4) is inhabited by a prospective rival or rivals of China able to project military power seaward. Hawaii meets the last test but fails the first three miserably. We may as well describe the Americas as Asia’s fourth island chain. That the island chain metaphor sounds outlandish to American ears when applied to Hawaii, while many Chinese take it seriously, nonetheless reveals something discomfiting about US-China relations.

As Chinese naval proponents see it, the first and second island chains complicate their nation’s nautical destiny so long as they remain in potentially hostile hands—as they will in the case of Japan, to take the most obvious example. Japan’s combination of geographic position, multiple seaports suitable for military shipping and resources makes it a permanent factor in Chinese strategy. Forces stationed along the island chains can encumber the Chinese navy’s free access to the Western Pacific while inhibiting north-south movement along the Asian seaboard. How to surmount or work around these immovable obstacles understandably preoccupies scholars and practitioners of naval affairs in China.

But what about Hawaii? That the archipelago commands enormous strategic value for the United States has been axiomatic for American strategists for over a century. For example, Mahan—whom the Timesof London colorfully dubbed the United States' ‘Copernicus’ of sea power—lauded its geopolitical worth. Unlike their forebears from the age of sail, steamships could defy winds and currents, but they also demanded fuel in bulk to make long voyages. Accordingly, he exhorted a United States with commercial interests at stake in Asia to forge a ‘chain’ of island bases to support the transpacific journeys of steam-propelled merchantmen and their guardians, armoured men-of-war.

Washington needed to annex Hawaii to start assembling the modest colonial empire Mahan and like-minded thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt espoused. Among the candidates for naval stations, proclaimed Mahan, ‘the Hawaiian group possesses unique importance—not from its intrinsic commercial value, but from its favorable position for maritime and military control.’ Several things made it unique. The sea was like a featureless plain, offering travelers little sustenance. The rarer the geographic features along this plain, the more valuable. If an expanse contained only one island or archipelago, its strategic value was matchless. Hawaii was just such an asset, lying at the center of a largely empty circle whose radius roughly equaled the distance from San Francisco to Honolulu.

The islands held a central position midway between the US west coast and Asia’s second island chain. British vessels traveling between Australia or New Zealand and Canada routinely called at Honolulu because it lay along their course. And once civil engineers finished digging a canal across Central America—the Panama Canal opened only in 1914—their efforts inscribed a new shipping route on the map. It was far more economical for vessels steaming from Atlantic seaports to the Far East to pass through the Caribbean Sea and enter the Pacific via the Isthmus than to circumnavigate South America. For them, too, Honolulu offered an ideal place to pause for rest and re-supply.

So much for the value of the Hawaiian Islands to the United States. Note, however, that Americans see the islands not as an offshore impediment to free navigation or a shield against foreign naval encroachment—two possible uses of the first and second island chains from the Chinese standpoint—but as the first link in a transpacific island chain extending westward to East Asia. The US military drove Spain from its island empire in 1898, in the process obtaining the island way stations it needed to support US rule of the Philippines.

For Americans, in other words, a Pacific island chain runs east-west. It resembles a bridge when we chart it horizontally on the map. In this spirit a 1907 issue of National Geographic included a map that festooned each newly acquired island with the Stars and Stripes. The caption accompanying it proudly announces that ‘The Pacific Is, and Will Remain, an American Ocean.’ The United States emancipated the Philippines in 1946 and surrendered its Philippine bases in 1992, leaving Japan to anchor the US presence in the Western Pacific. But now, as a century ago, the US base network extends westward from Hawaii, pierces the second island chain at Gua, and terminates in the first island chain—giving the US military the forward presence by which it commands Asian waters and skies.

This is quite different from the north-south or vertical orientation of the first and second island chains. On the map, the island chains resemble a flank or shield against a westward US naval advance. To Chinese eyes, the US base network looks like a wedge driving into that shield. The American and Chinese perspectives on geography, maritime interests and strategy thus intersect and clash on the map. This intuitively helps explain the tensions on display in US-China relations in recent years.

Taken to extremes, Beijing’s habit of appraising Pacific and Indian Ocean geography through the island chain lens—that is, seeing geographic features as an adversary’s defense perimeter that must be punctured, or a wall that must be fortified for defense—could misshape Chinese maritime strategy. Prodded by such conceptions, the Chinese leadership could take an unduly pessimistic view of the strategic surroundings, needlessly straining relations with the many seafaring powers that ply the Western Pacific and China’s near seas.

Nor, I should add, is this an isolated instance of intellectual overreach. Some Chinese analysts extend the first island chain in a grand arc to Diego Garcia. And if the Hawaiian Islands constitute a third island chain for some Chinese analysts, others see the Andaman and Nicobar islands as a ‘metal chain’ the Indian military could stretch across the western approaches to the Strait of Malacca. New Delhi could bar a passage crucial to Chinese energy security and economic development. Whether such menaces are real is another question. How Beijing responds to remote or illusory threats of this kind will be worth watching.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views ventured here are his alone.