Thursday, April 27, 2017

Island Bases

The Chinese have constructed, and continue to construct and expand, artificial islands throughout the East and South China Sea regions.  Setting aside the blatant illegality of attempting to make territorial claims on those islands and the Chinese policy of running roughshod over all international norms and laws regarding resolution of territorial disputes, the islands pose a significant military presence that alters the balance and exercise of power in the region.  Disturbingly, the US has ceded the region without a shot being fired.

Sadly, there is a school of thought that the artificial islands the Chinese are building in the South China Sea have no value and the US should simply pull out of the area and not contest the islands – that our protests and contentions are what’s causing tensions in the region.  The proponents of this school are misguided, to put it politely, and seem to have no grasp of geopolitics, human nature, Chinese culture, or military strategy and operations.

If, as Chinese apologists would have us believe, the islands have no real value and are not worth contending over, why, then, are the Chinese pouring so much money and effort into their construction?  Further, the Chinese know that they are expending a huge amount of unrecoverable political and public relations capital.  They know they are creating enemies in the world community and problems that will plague them for decades to come and yet they clearly deem the islands to be worth the cost.

The islands greatly extend the Chinese military reach and solidify their control of the first island chain.  They’ve achieved their objective of seizing control of the first island chain and are now engaged in strengthening their hold.  The islands offer air and naval bases with deepwater ports well away from the mainland.  The anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone which, pre-island construction, consisted of little more than a theoretical ballistic missile threat hobbled by targeting difficulties, some long range bombers, a competent but overextended and inexperienced navy, and some submarines that were barely learning to venture out from their ports, now, becomes, in the near future, a very credible threat.

The Chinese artificial islands serve two purposes, one political and one military.

Politically, the islands serve to strengthen China’s claims to the South China Sea.  The US Freedom of Navigation Innocent Passage exercises legally, and bizarrely, reinforce China’s claims of sovereignty.  In time, the surrounding countries will come to accept the islands as Chinese territory and, in more time, will grudgingly concede territorial rights.  Eventually, each island will come to have a 12 mile international territorial limit and a 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).  It is this EEZ that is vital to China’s plans.  The EEZ will overlap other country’s territory, such as the Philippines, and will provide the excuse that China needs to begin annexing those countries under the guise of protecting their EEZ rights.  This may sound far-fetched at the moment but annexing the entire South China Sea would have sounded far-fetched ten years ago and yet it has happened.

Militarily, the islands serve many purposes.  They serve to move any initial combat from China’s mainland out to a thousand miles.  In this respect, the islands serve as a tripwire, forcing any attacking country to first “announce” their intentions by dealing with the islands, thus buying time for China to respond.  The fact that the US would never strike first is lost on the Chinese whose paranoia is boundless.  Thus, from their perspective, a thousand mile barrier of tripwire islands makes perfect sense.

The islands provide the targeting capability that makes the anti-ship ballistic missile threat real through land based radar and air bases from which radar planes can operate.  This is a key point.  The “carrier killer” DF-21 and similar anti-ship ballistic missiles were a hollow threat because the Chinese had no long range targeting capability.  Now they do.  Now the “carrier killer” threat is real.

The islands provide the naval bases that allow the navy to extend their reach by utilizing the bases for support, supply, and refueling.  Further, the island air bases provide the air cover needed to support naval operations.

Without a doubt, the islands are being used to emplace SOSUS-like listening systems to aid in their ASW efforts.

America’s ability to freely enter and roam the East and South China Seas is gone.  Our operations will be closely and precisely monitored.  Every US military unit’s location will be precisely known.  Our submarines will be subjected to greatly intensified surveillance and the islands will be used to greatly expand Chinese ASW coverage.

Also, seizure of the South China Sea seals off easy approach from Diego Garcia and the Indian Ocean.

All of this is bad but the situation is worse than that.  When conflict comes, our military efforts won’t be able to start a thousand miles out from the mainland, at the first island chain, but rather many hundreds of miles past the first island chain.  The artificial islands are now the starting point for US military operations.  They are military fortresses that must be neutralized before we can even begin to address the A2/AD zone as we currently know it.  Before the islands were built, we could have begun operations at the first island chain.  We could have entered the East/South China Seas with relatively little risk and launched long range cruise missile attacks with reasonable safety.  The islands, however, push our starting point back by many hundreds of miles.  We can no longer reach cruise missile launch points without being subjected to island based defenses.

The Chinese have added another layer to their defense-in-depth concept and we allowed it without any resistance.

Well, at least it’s over and done.  The Chinese have the entire South China Sea and first island chain but now they’re done.  They’ve accomplished their goal and will now settle back to being the peaceful and responsible world neighbor that they were before the entire South China Sea / first island chain episode began, right?  Wrong!  It’s just the beginning.  This is like giving the bully your lunch money and assuming that he’ll be satisfied and won’t bother you again.  Unfortunately, like the bully that continually wants more, China is already eyeing further expansions, specifically the second island chain which begins at Japan, includes Palau, Guam, and the Marianas which are US territory, and terminates at New Guinea.  Significantly, the Philippines are encompassed by the chain.

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. ” (2)

“Some Chinese analysts extend the first island chain in a grand arc to Diego Garcia. “  [emphasis added]

The Army, at least, agrees with my assessment regarding the purpose behind the artificial islands.  Gen. McMaster puts it succinctly,

“China is “building land… to project power outward from land into the maritime and aerospace domains,” the Army’s chief futurist, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, argued yesterday at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.” (1)

Just as the US island hopped across the Pacific during WWII, the Chinese have begun island hopping (and building islands where none exist, if needed) in the reverse direction across the Pacific.  Just as the US used each successive island to provide basing for further conquests, so too are the Chinese using each successive island as a base for further expansion and conquest.

Each island that we allow the Chinese to conquer or build represents a bloody battle that will have to be fought sometime down the road.  We need to recognize the purpose behind the islands and halt China’s expansion.

The Trump administration recently made a statement in regards to North Korea that the “era of strategic patience” is over.  Hopefully, that’s a euphemism for the end of appeasement and hopefully it applies to China, as well.


(1) Breaking Defense website, “What Lessons Do China’s Island Bases Offer The US Army?, Sydney Freedberg Jr., 5-May-2016,

(2)The Diplomat website, “Island Chains Everywhere”, James R. Holmes, 16-Feb-2011,


  1. I don't disagree with you, but I think the cause is lost. I believe that the current administration is viewing the NK's getting Nukes as a more proximate danger.

    The time to strike on this was as they were doing them. Now we have to figure out how to deal with them.

    1. The South China Sea is lost but the Chinese plan to expand to the second island chain so we still have an opportunity to restrict them.

      Those illegal artificial islands are a perfect SEAL mission. Just saying ...

  2. Agreed. It would be more fitting than what they do in the desert too, in my opinion.

  3. This is what happens when you waste your resources for 60 years in futile wars, and then try a ham-handed "Pacific Pivot" and the obvious TPP containment strategy excluding China.

    This is what happens when your elites sell out your middle classes for financial gain. When your moral basis decays. When your raison d'etre as a protector of freedom is utterly corrupted into a police state and hypocritical foreign invasions.

    Why wouldn't the Philippines tilt toward China? The Chinese are rolling in with billions of infrastructure investment. They'd do better as a Chinese satapy than as cheap call-center labor for the USA and domestic workers being abused by Gulf Arabs.

    Yeah China sucks in a lot of ways, but I've been to Shanghai and Guangzhou, it's not too bad, and Hong Kong too. They are the rising evolving empire, we are the declining empire. In 1000 years, shit's gonna be different, no doubt about it.

    1. Do you have a point to make beyond America-is-evil?

    2. I was getting more at America-is-stupid, and should worry about core national strength more than picking fights over tiny islands in the South China Sea.

    3. So, you were unimpressed by the post which described the importance of the "tiny islands"?

    4. I was not unimpressed. The facts about the islands you recite are true, but you draw the most extreme conclusions and inferences. Like all hawks, you only see aggressive actions, not reactions.

      While the Chinese have always claimed the SCS, they only started building islands after Obama announced is Pacific Pivot in 2011, including an ostentatious deployment of Marines to Australia like it was 1942. Negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership which excluded China started in 2010. Then they started building the islands.

      Later on, he USA refused to join China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, unlike the UK, Australia and Israel, even though China is a member of the Asian Development Bank.

      What is China supposed to make of this? They are a major rising power, per capita GDP has risen 800% since 1980 (USA in same period 55%, with almost zero median income growth). Like all countries, they want to secure resources, trade, and freedom of navigation. They want respect. They are a major creditor and trade partner of the USA. Shanghai has a lot of Buicks driving around.

      What are Chinese objectives? Certainly Taiwan, and the islands are a means to that end. But they have a long-term view. They are building One Belt One Road to connect Eurasia. They are building infrastructure and relationships around the world - a port in Sri Lanka, proposed railroads in the Philippines. They want China to be attractive, not just coercive.

      The Philippines is a good example of the failure of the USA, and the opportunity presented for China. Despite being a former colony, and deep cultural and family ties, the USA hasn't done jack shit for the Philippines for 50 years.

      Duterte may be a straight-out Chinese agent, or he just hates the USA for personal and historic reasons, but the Chinese can roll in with investment and infrastructure the Philippines needs. The only effective counterbalance is Korean and Japanese aid and investment.

      To get back to Taiwan, the Chinese will want to cajole and bully Taiwan to take a deal similar to Hong Kong, complicated by the fact that Taiwan is a real democracy, not a ruled colony the way Hong Kong was. Yet Hong Kong is still relatively free after 20 years.

      They might invade Taiwan if things change, true. The USA can and should help Taiwan in that case, but would they go to a general war with China risking nukes? Bear in mind the Chinese see Taiwan like Massachusetts saw South Carolina in 1861. It's not ideology, it's nationalism.

      Beyond that, I don't see the Chinese invading Hanoi, Honshu, or Hawaii. Why should they? The world is falling into their lap as the USA flails around militarily and rots from within. There will still be 4000 miles between Chinese waters and Adak.

      For your view, a good speculative fiction read on a Chinese invasion of the USA in the near future is "Invasion" by Eric Harry. Out of print, but copies available on Amazon. Stresses importance of the Navy!

    5. So, if your interpretation of history is that China has done nothing but react to US provocations, why did Obama announce a Pacific Pivot? Was it just a random thought that occurred to him in the middle of the night? Or, was there some reason for it? If there was a reason, what was it? Could the Pacific Pivot have been a reaction? If so, to what?

      Answer these questions and show me that you can actually analyze a situation rather than just spout a political preference. I'm curious to see what you come up with.

    6. Why did Obama bomb Libya? Why did he arm rebels in Syria? Why did he meddle in Ukrainian politics? You would ask: why did he make a deal with Iran? Barring revelations from Obama's memoir or declassified information years from now, it looks like another misjudgment to me.

      The misjudgment was not so much a redeployment of resources to the Pacific, which could be prudent, but in the overweening and provocative announcement of the policy. The exclusion from the TPP is another factor.
      I can imagine the Chinese saying, "screw these bastards, they can't cooperate" after that.

      And I didn't say that China has done nothing but react. They committed minor aggression with their coast guard and fishing boats in the SCS and ECS before the Pacific Pivot. There was the EP-3 incident in 2001, maybe some other friction on the high seas. But they really ramped up their activities in SCS after being excluded from TPP and the ballyhooed Pacific Pivot.

      How is it that you can write so well on the corruption and incompetence in ship and weapons procurement by Navy leadership, yet somehow think the national leadership always makes good decisions?

      What I write is not just political preference. I brought some facts to the discussion - about the timeline of the TPP, Pacific Partnership, the Asian development banks, One Road One Belt, Chinese aid and investment, and the comparative neglect of the Philippines and the whole region by the US vs the island building. Do you have any countervailing facts?

    7. You've come so close to a full answer to my question but you stopped short! Actually, you answered it while denying it!

      Your stated premise is that Obama decided on a Pacific Pivot for absolutely no reason - a misjudgment, you call it. However, you then proceed to contradict yourself by listing some reasons why Obama did announce a Pacific Pivot - the EP-3 seizure (a legal act of war!), various coast guard and fishing incidents, and "maybe some other friction on the high seas" (quaintly put!). So, while denying Obama had any reason to act, you then proceed to list a few reasons! As I said, you came close to answering the question. Obama and the US had plenty of reasons to REACT to China. You might also consider China's history of massive military build up which preceded the Pacific Pivot. You might also consider the Scarborough Shoal history which predates that Pivot. So, the Pacific Pivot was not the precipitating incident. China's expansionistic and militaristic actions were the precipitating actions.

      So, having established that the US had ample reason for a Pacific Pivot, we can begin more objective discussions. Unfortunately, this is not a political blog so this is probably about the end of this.

    8. "How is it that you can write so well on the corruption and incompetence in ship and weapons procurement by Navy leadership"

      Hey, thanks!

      "yet somehow think the national leadership always makes good decisions?"

      Good grief! You can't be serious! I am uniformly critical of American geopolitical decision making. In fact, one of my constant themes is that the US utterly lacks a coherent geopolitical strategy and that that lack is the root of many of our international problems. If you honestly think that I believe the US political leadership always makes good decisions, you've failed badly to read and comprehend this blog! For example, where have I stated that the Pacific Pivot is a good thing? I haven't. You've made an unsubstantiated (false) assumption.

      You had some elements of a nice commentary but failed to objectively analyze the full scenario. I urge you to reconsider, reanalyze, and re-comment. Such an objective, reasoned comment could be quite interesting and would further the discussion.

    9. "Why did Obama bomb Libya? Why ..."

      Why? Why? Why? You imply that Obama acted for no good reasons. You may disagree with his reasons but he didn't act at random. His decisions were made with reasons behind them. To imply otherwise is sophomoric and unworthy of you.

      Now, before you reply with a comment asking why I support Obama's decisions, reread this carefully. Have I actually stated that I support Obama's decisions or is that just what you think I've said? Hmmmm .....

    10. Ok, one point for now. The 2001 EP-3 incident could hardly be attributed to Chinese national leadership. It was an overly-aggressive pilot who paid for his foolishness with his life, which I doubt he intended.

      The EP-3 was not seized, it was landed by the pilot in distress. Not able to take off again, it was disassembled and returned to the USA in an Antonov freighter after three months in Hainan. Not an act of war, unless you attribute the actions of suicidal rogue lieutenants to a country.

      The after-action report was leaked by Snowden and is out there on the internet if you are interested.

    11. You just lost all credibility. I'm disappointed. I had hoped for better. Oh well.

    12. Again, do you have any facts to offer? Usually arguments depend on the marshalling and interpretation of facts. I am also disappointed.

    13. One other fact: determining what an "act of war" is a political question, not a legal one. There is no such definition in international law.

  4. Look at a map. The PI and Vietnam are much closer and have a geography right to those shoals more than the PRC...always have. Too bad for those powerless nations, eh?

    The CHICOMs have been fortifying and building those islands since the late 1970's and all through the 80s and 90s. I remember well flying through and over them w/one eye on Vietnam where the Rooskies routinely flew out (21/23s) and tried to intercept us out of Cam Rahn Bay (former US base). That was over 35 years ago! What have we done since? Not much. IMO, we never built up the PI militarily like we should have and let them do the same as China much earlie; nor did we much pay attention to their expansion, we now call provocation...

    Back in the 1980's the reasons given me on why they wanted possession of those islands is that they were rich in offshore gas/oil shoals. At the time China did not have a good source of oil (sort of like Japan before WW2) and they took what was their own interest.... Now, like you say, those origins have morphed into something more sinister? Probably...

    IMO, it's a lost deal and hand Harry Harris, P-3 'FO is playing, because we didn't act early enough.

    However, we could leverage the PRCs "Sprately Islands imperialism" by saying we will accept their right to the islands IF they "nuclear-ly(not a word) neuter" North Korea and provide some regional stability in NW Asia. Everything based on performance of course.

    Is that too mercenary or too pragmatic?


    1. "PI" is Philippines?

      You're correct that the South China Sea is a done deal. We lost. However, I'm intrigued, and not necessarily in a good way, by your Spratly Island trade suggestion. That would give the Chinese exactly what they want - officially sanctioned and recognized territorial rights over the entire South/East China Sea AND REGIONS BEYOND. Check a map. If we grant Spratly Island territorial status, that immediately confers the 200 mile EEZ which significantly overlaps other country's territorial and EEZ's and gives China the springboard to announce that the overlap areas are now in dispute (just like the first island chain began, right?) and subject to Chinese "guardianship" and eventual takeover. What would we get out of the deal? At most, a temporary, unenforceable, and unverifiable pause in NKorea's nuclear program.

      NKorea is nothing more than a temporary problem. They do not have the land, resources, or economy to constitute a long term threat to the US. Yes, they can cause a LOT of problems in the shorter term but they are doomed to implode one way or another.

      So, we give China everything they want in exchange for "solving" a very temporary problem for us? That's not an exchange I'd favor.

      The fascinating and worrisome part of your suggestion is that I'm afraid it would look quite appealing and reasonable, on the surface, to many people and that we'd be all too eager to jump on it and play right into China's hands.

      If we're willing to broaden our thinking a bit and consider a massive preemptive strike, we can decapitate NKorea and remove the nuclear threat anytime we want.

      While I disagree with your suggestion, your comment was excellent and top quality and is exactly the kind of comment that furthers a worthwhile discussion. Thanks!

    2. NK nuke program would be a serious threat to the USA if they develop thermonuclear weapons and ICBMs. 10 MT a lot worse than 10KT. Kim's a nut, poisoning his brother, killing his uncle with AA guns. Totally corrupt, evil, delusional.

      Dealing with China on NK is also a step towards a reasonable partnership with them, condominium not confrontation.

    3. China is using NK as a bargaining chip to get more of what they want from us. China has no inherent interest in ensuring NK becomes a peaceful world neighbor.

  5. My thinking is broad and based on experience both in the Cold War and up to today. I took the Army tour to the DMZ, too... IMO, that idea I floated was direct and reality based.

    This SCS issue is like property and possession being 9/10ths of the law principles. I think the PRC has bigger ambitions than just the Spratly's, don't you?

    We don't need to grant them territorial status (who are we the UN? LOL) when they already think they have it! No, we just keep up our freedom of navigation patrols and recon flights but just accept the status quo in the region. The missed opportunity back in the 1980s and 90's lead to is called the South CHINA Sea. We can't go back. Meanwhile and BTW, I say build up our new base at Palawan to keep an eye on things.

    As you must know CNO, some things are worth fighting for and some ain't. Unfortunately we don't have the power in the world today to do what we did just 10 years ago.. Things are bad. We need some time to recover.

    Re NK and "they can cause a LOT of problems in the shorter term"... Yeah, unfortunately that includes 6-10 million people driving Hyundais and using Samsung phones 65 miles south. I saw a "first world" country on a recent visit, different from what I first observed in 1985... In this case we must consider the ROK before we act, because just like you I think we will have to act because this nut Kim seems like the end of the line for his genetic lineage and the rest of his country's population is organized along lines akin to "Animal Farm"...Bad endings all around...but of course I may be wrong- back in the 70's I thought the USSR/Berlin Wall would last my entire life. How to accomplish Kim's take down though...

    This simple quid pro quo idea was based on pragmatism because some countries are enemies, and others are adversaries who could be enemies. Plus, we don't have the military nor the power we had even 27 years ago:

    However CNO, don't worry, because a solution like this really is "worrisome"! IMO, our present day leaders aren't decision makers or big enough, IE- what I suggested could never happen. ;-)


    1. I have no problem with a pragmatic solution as long as we get something substantial in return. In your scenario, I just don't think we would get enough to justify it. I'll have to think ... is there something more we could ask/get that WOULD justify it? Hmm ...

      I couldn't agree more with your comment that we need a period to recover. However, that has to start by admitting that we are in a condition that needs recovery. Our current military leadership has no moral fortitude or courage and simply keeps telling the civilian/political leadership and Congress that we are fully mission capable - interspersed with occasional whines about wanting more ships and planes but without any coherent rationale (strategy) why.

    2. "what I suggested could never happen"

      Oh, absolutely it could happen. In fact, it essentially did with the Iranian deal. We gave Iran everything they wanted in exchange for a temporary (even under the best interpretation of the deal), unverifiable pause in their nuclear program. On top of the deal, we sent them cargo planes of money! This is, for all practical purposes, the exact deal you proposed, isn't it? And the US bought it hook, line, and sinker. That's what scares me about what you proposed. It's all too feasible!!!! I hope no US politician reads this cause you'll have given them exactly the kind of deal they'd jump at.

      May you get incurable jungle rot in your butt crack for coming up with such an attractive deal! Just kidding ... I hope the rot only lasts a few years.


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