By Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd)
Sun Tzu a famous Chinese General and a great military leader’s words spoken many centuries back “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat” are now checkmating China as USA carries out blitzkrieg in its Island Chain strategy.
Island Chain Strategy was formulated in 1951 by John Foster Dulles, a visionary foreign affairs expert who enumerated the need to contain the erstwhile USSR and China with a string of naval bases in the western Pacific region to restrict sea access to these two countries.
This strategy did not gain much traction during the Cold War but after the USSR broke up into 15 countries on December 26, 1991, the Island Chain Strategy gained momentum to contain China, whose growing economic prowess and its desire for hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region was no open secret.
An important dimension of this strategy is the strategic location and importance of Taiwan, whom China wants to conquer and take it back to its folds. The Chinese President Xi Jinping has remarked that the reunification with Taiwan must be done. And use of the armed forces in achieving this stated aim is not ruled out. On January 02, 2019 Xi Jinping announced that Taiwan will be taken back by 2050.
The strategy encompasses three island chains- the First Island Chain, the Second Island Chain and the Third Island Chain, all three of which are in the Pacific Ocean.
Of late it has been proposed to create a Fourth and a Fifth Island Chain too in the Indian Ocean. Thus, the five Island Chains of the Island Chain Strategy would checkmate China and contain its dreams for control over the Indo-Pacific region.
The First Island Chain comprises the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, northwest Philippines and ending at Borneo. This chain is also the first line of defence and serves as the maritime boundaries between the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. In this chain are located the Bashi Channel and the Miyako Strait which are critical chokepoints for China.
The Second Island Chain consists of the Bonin Islands, Volcano Islands, Mariana Islands, western Caroline Islands and Western New Guinea. This chain is the eastern maritime boundary of the Philippine Sea. The visit of the US Secretary of Defence’s visit to the tiny nation of Palau in August 2020 highlights the importance being accorded to this chain. USA has Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) agreements with Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia; all located in this chain, over scores the interest of USA in this chain.
The Third Island Chain refers to the Aleutian Islands running through the centre of the Pacific Ocean through the Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa, and Fiji culminating at New Zealand. In this chain New Zealand-Tonga-Hawaii plays an important role. Tonga, a small nation with a large Exclusive Economic Zone of 676,401 square kilometres and located 2330 kilometres from New Zealand and 5000 kilometres from Hawaii, needs special attention as it is a fertile region for Chinese investments and interests.
The Fourth Island Chain proposes to have the Lakshadweep Islands, Maldives, Diego Garcia with Gwadar and Hambantota in Pakistan and Sri Lanka respectively. Though China has managed to take over Gwadar and Hambantota ports, but with the inner turmoil in Pakistan and Sri Lanka due to the Chinese debt trap and other reasons, USA still has its eyes firmly set up on these two ports and is looking for an opportune moment to take them over from the Chinese grip.
The Fifth Island Chain is planned to originate from Camp Lemonnier in the Gulf of Aden, around the Horn of Africa, along the East African coastline, through the Mozambique Channel towards South Africa with the aim of encircling the Chinese naval bases in Doraleh and Djibouti.
Though the Fourth & Fifth Island Chains are proposals and haven’t been put into actualities as yet but with China going aggressively with its Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and having security pacts with the strategically located Solomon Islands and the Vanuatu Islands, the time is now ripe to fructify the Fourth & Fifth Island Chains.
There can be no better quote to sum up the Island Chain Strategy than Robert J Mckain’s quip “Strategic planning will help you fully uncover your available options, set priorities for them and define the methods to achieve them”.
(The author is Indian Army Veteran from the Corps of Engineers, an alumnus of NDA, Khadakwasla and IIT Kanpur. He tweets and Koos at @JassiSodhi24. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)