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 has ceded the region without a shot being fired. US
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
’s claims to the China South China Sea. The US
Freedom of Navigation Innocent Passage exercises legally, and bizarrely, reinforce
’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 China , and will provide the excuse that Philippines 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. China
Militarily, the islands serve many purposes. They serve to move any initial combat from
’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 China 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
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.
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, is already eyeing further expansions, specifically the second island
chain which begins at China , includes Japan , Palau Guam, and the Marianas which are territory, and terminates at US .
Significantly, the New Guinea are encompassed by the chain. Philippines
“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
, 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) Japan
“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
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. US
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
’s expansion. China
The Trump administration recently made a statement in regards to
that the “era of strategic patience” is over. Hopefully, that’s a euphemism for the end of
appeasement and hopefully it applies to North Korea , as well. China
(1) Breaking Defense website, “What Lessons Do China’s Island Bases Offer The US Army?, Sydney Freedberg Jr.,
(2)The Diplomat website, “Island Chains Everywhere”, James R. Holmes,