Feature Article

Chinese, US military conceptions of ‘Island Chains’ in Indian Ocean

[TamilNet, Friday, 16 November 2018, 14:21 GMT]
China has redefined the regional security environment and shifted it toward the Indian Ocean basin, expanding three Pacific “island chains” also to the Indian Ocean, argues Wilson VornDick, a China analyst and a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, in an article published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Describing the conception as his personal views and as not associated with a U.S. government or U.S. Navy policy, VornDick says the “fourth island chain through the middle of the Indian Ocean would reflect China’s ability to challenge its geostrategic neighbour India with dual-use facilities in Gwadar, Pakistan, and Hambantota, Sri Lanka.”

“A fifth island Chain, originating from China’s base at Doraleh, Djibouti, would reflect Beijing’s ability to pursue its developing commitments afar, such as harnessing economic resources, conducting anti-piracy operations, and protecting Chinese living abroad,” he writes in the article published in October 2018.

“In 2017, China made two major moves in the Indian Ocean basin: it set up its first overseas military base in Doraleh and, through economic maneuvering, extracted a 99-year concession from the Sri Lankan government for Hambantota port. Some analysts contend that a second overseas military base in Gwadar is a not-too-distant reality,” VornDick writes further.

The latest perceptions emerge from the US military analysts as China has been increasing its military assets in Africa in parallel to its trade and commercial interests.

This perception is also evidenced in the increased rivalry between China and India (accompanied by the West) causing greater instability in the Maldives in recent years. The latest regime change has tilted the geostrategic balance in New Delhi's favour.

4th & 5th Island Chains
The Prospective Fourth and Fifth Island Chains [Map courtesy: Wilson VornDick / AMTI UPDATE]


In June 2018, China's Ministry of National Defence organised a ‘China-Africa Defense and Security Forum’in Beijing. Military commanders and defence officials from 49 African states and the African Union took part in the forum.

China has also deployed military attachés in its embassies across Africa.

Chinese PLAN drill in Africa
Chinese PLAN drill in Africa
Mail & Guardian, a South African weekly, reported in October that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army units had conducted drills in Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana and Nigeria in the first half of 2018 alone. “Mere months after Burkina Faso’s May decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, the PLA is already working to develop military ties that will likely emphasise counter-terrorism cooperation,” the paper further said.

Chinese military operated with the concepts of the First and Second Island Chains during the Cold War. The first one centred on Taiwan and the second chain extended from Japan to Indonesia. The third line of Chinese defence was a later perception, a broad defence line in the sea from Hawaii to New Zealand.

Apart from the US perceptions, Rear Admiral Dr S. Kulshrestha (Retd.) of the Indian Navy has also argued the case for the Third Islands Chain in 2016.

“The key component of the First Island Chain was Taiwan (it was thereafter christened as one of the Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers); it extended from northern Philippines & Borneo, up to Kuril islands. The second line of defense was from Mariana Island to Islands of Japan. The Third Chain’s key component was Hawaii; it began at Aleutians and ended in Oceania. Now that the breakdown of USSR has taken place, the Chinese believe that this concept would be used to contain China,” Kulshrestha wrote in the New-York based IndraStra Global.

“At sea, imaginative use of islands and passages can balk an adversary’s strategy if that strategy depends on free movement through nearby waters,” writes James R Holmes, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of “Red Star over the Pacific,” in an article authored in 2014.

“Terrain, then, can offset an opponent’s advantages in numbers of ships, aircraft, or manpower. Used deftly, it can produce a margin of superiority at places where it matters most,” Holmes writes.


External Links:
IndraAstra Global: Tonga & the Third Island Chain
CSIS: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative: China's reach has grown; so should the Island Chains
U.S. Naval Institute: Defend the First Island Chain
Mail & Guardian: China’s expanding military footprint in Africa


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