Strategic Geography of Chinese Sea Power II

Taiwan: Central Link in the Chain

While the policy community in the United States remains divided over the geostrategic importance of Taiwan, the notion that the island is imbued with strategic and military value is uncontroversial on the mainland. Indeed, the intersection of geography and strategy is central to many Chinese narratives about the first island chain and Taiwan’s place in it. The Science of Military Strategy, a book China watchers widely hail as authoritative, captures the essence of this geostrategic line of reasoning. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, coeditors of the 2005 edition, warn:

If Taiwan should be alienated from the mainland, not only our natural maritime defense system would lose its depth, opening a sea gateway to the outside forces, but also a large area of water territory and rich reserves of ocean resources will fall into the hands of others. What’s more, our line of foreign trade and transportation which is vital to China’s opening up and economic development will be exposed to the surveillance and threats of separatist and enemy forces, and China will forever be locked to the west side of the first chain of islands in the West Pacific. As a result, China’s national security will be confronted with serious threat and the essential strategic space for China’s rejuvenation will be lost.

Reunifying with Taiwan, then, involves far more than sovereignty and national dignity, the motives Westerners commonly impute to China. Taiwan’s return to mainland rule would buttress China’s strategic position, broaden access to resources and trade, and brighten prospects for restoring China’s rightful standing in Asia. Other Chinese analysts have elaborated in detail on Taiwan’s geostrategic qualities listed above. Many view Taiwan as an organic and indispensable component of China’s maritime frontier that overlaps with the first island chain.

This is neither a novel nor a peculiarly communist way of thinking about Taiwan. In 1947 the supreme leader of China’s Nationalist Party, Chiang Kai-shek, bewailed the Chinese heartland’s poverty of natural defenses. Because of this, outlying territories, including Formosa, were “strategic regions for safeguarding the nation’s existence; to lop off any one of them from China is to destroy her national defense.” Frontier defenses were indivisible for Chiang. Compromising any section of the ramparts brought down the whole edifice.

The 2013 edition of Science of Military Strategy is less explicit than its predecessor about Taiwan’s geographical significance. Perhaps the coauthors, a team from the AMS’ Military Strategy Department, regard the island’s standing in China’s maritime strategy as self-evident and feel no need to restate the obvious. Whatever the case, they are no less explicit about Taiwan’s strategic significance to China. They opine that the “U.S. strategy of ‘containing China with Taiwan’” remains unchanged, and that the protracted Taiwan controversy has become a “major factor that ties down and consumes China’s strategic resources in politics, the economy, and the military.” They depict the unresolved quarrel as “a long-term hidden danger obstructing the Chinese nation from realizing its great revival.”32 Taiwan, then, represents both an implement of latter-day American containment and a barrier blocking China from fulfilling its dream of national revival.

Some commentators employ geometry to elucidate Taiwan’s strategic geography. In a study sponsored by the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, for instance, Wang Wei depicts Taiwan in precise geometric terms. Along China’s 18,000-kilometer coastline, the Shandong Peninsula, Taiwan, and Hainan Island constitute the maximum seaward extensions of Chinese territory. The distance from Taiwan’s Kaohsiung to the tip of the Shandong Peninsula and to Yulin in Hainan is roughly the same, about 1,400 kilometers. Wang views the three “protruding points” as aligning to form China’s maritime defense perimeter in the shape of an isosceles triangle. Taiwan is at the apex of this triangle, positioned astride China’s north-south line of communications.

In theory, military assets based on Shandong, Taiwan, and Hainan could render one another mutual support, expanding coverage throughout the China seas or beyond. Should Beijing abandon efforts to regain Taiwan, two analysts at the PLA University of Foreign Languages warn, “China’s maritime defenses would be cut into two pieces while our navy would be forced to operate separately in the two seas, unable to provide mutual support.” Zhang Shirong of the Central Party School concurs: “Once Hainan Island loses mutual support from Taiwan Island, the defense of the Spratly Islands would erode, making the protection of sea rights in the Spratlys far more difficult.” A triangular arrangement bereft of its apex accomplishes little in martial terms.

As a geographic marker, the Taiwan Strait also exposes the asymmetric structure of China’s seaborne commerce. If Quanzhou, near the Taiwan Strait’s midpoint, is used to divide China’s coastline along its north–south axis, then ten of the mainland’s sixteen major ports lie to the north. But while China’s ports lie mainly to the north, three of the four main international trading routes—bound for markets in Southeast Asia and Oceania, Europe, and South America, respectively—generally head southward from these northern harbors. By implication, Taiwan’s return to mainland rule would restore balance to China’s economic access points and the flow of seaborne trade.

Other commentators speculate that retaking the island would grant China a commanding position over the near seas while guaranteeing direct military access to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, possession of Taiwan would open the way for Chinese forces to look and operate beyond the first island chain. If the island chain looks like a Great Wall in reverse, then regaining Taiwan would open a breach in the wall while lodging the PLA firmly at its midpoint, thus opening a secure sally port into the Pacific. According to Senior Captain Li Jie: “Possessing Taiwan would enable one to effectively control the strategic choke points between the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Possessing Taiwan opens an advantageous waterway to the interior seas of the second island chain while opening a convenient path to the high seas. As such, Taiwan Island serves an important function as the central pivot of the first island chain.”

Zhu Tingchang of the PLA’s Institute of International Relations vividly describes the geostrategic value of Taiwan: “For China to develop in the Pacific, it must charge out of the first island chain. And the key to charging out of the first island chain is Taiwan. Taiwan is China’s front gate to the Pacific. If the Taiwan question is not resolved, then it is akin to a lock around the neck of a great dragon.” Hyperbole aside, Zhu’s view of Taiwan as China’s portal to the Pacific is widely shared.

But more than just access to the oceans is at stake. Many strategists consider Taiwan the lynchpin of U.S. containment strategy in Asia. Returning it to China’s sovereignty would undo that malign strategy, wresting away the strategic advantages Taiwan bestows on the United States while helping defeat Western efforts at containment. Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying, in fact, believe that restoring the renegade province to China’s rule would dismember the postwar architecture of American power in Asia: “Solving the Taiwan problem and fulfilling China’s reunification is the most central strategic choice for breaking the three main island chains, especially the first island chain binding China. Because Taiwan is located at the center of the first island chain, it is the important strategic base point for guarding the South China and East China Seas. At the same time, the island is the chain link located closest to our mainland shore and plays an important role as an intermediate hub along the entire stretch of the first island chain.”

Shi and Li predict the various strategic effects that unification would produce in maritime Asia in evocative language: “Taiwan’s unification with the Chinese mainland would snap the central waist of the first island chain that the United States and its allies have so carefully constructed. It would also substantially reduce the strategic value of the Ryukyu Islands, which are strategically interdependent with Taiwan. This would mean that the first island chain would completely collapse as an American and allied instrument for blockading China. The United States would have no choice but to retreat to the second island chain.”

In other words, the two authors maintain that China can render Japan’s southern flank untenable by taking Taiwan and severing the first island chain in half. Doing so would subject the southwestern islands and the Senkakus to withering Chinese pressure. Shi and Li also prophesy a breakdown in the U.S. forward presence in Asia following unification, including withdrawals from South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. They leave unsaid why losing Taiwan would compel the United States to fall back to Guam, but they clearly see cross-strait unification as the trigger for a cascading failure of the U.S.-led alliance system.

Carl von Clausewitz distinguishes between “negative aim” campaigns and “positive aim” campaigns. The first denies an enemy its strategic goals; the second strives for positive strategic gain. Union with Taiwan would accomplish the negative aim of nullifying American containment while advancing the positive aims of ensuring access to the Pacific Ocean and applying pressure on U.S. allies. This adds up to a compelling brief on behalf of retaking the island.

Japan: The Northern Anchor

The lengthy Japanese archipelago north of Taiwan bestrides the strategic intersection between the maritime interests of rival great powers. As Zhang Songfeng of the PLA’s Institute of International Relations observes, “The maritime lifeline that Japan depends upon for its imports and exports is also the only passageway for China’s eastward entry into the Pacific, the United States’ westward entry into East Asia, and Russia’s southward movement.”

Liu Baoyin and Yang Xiaomei call on the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 to explain how Japanese geography molds great-power struggles in Northeast Asia. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) exploited Japan’s advantageous geographic position to keep Russia’s Asiatic squadrons divided and confined to Port Arthur and Vladivostok. St. Petersburg’s inability to concentrate its fleet, they argue, supplied a key ingredient in Tokyo’s victory.

Describing the Japanese islands as an “impassable maritime great wall,” Liu and Yang further contend that the archipelago’s proximity to eastern Eurasia enables Japan-based forces to project power throughout the Yellow Sea or East China Sea or deep into the Asian continent. They observe that “the combat radius of advanced fighters launched from bases on the Japanese home islands could reach the interior of East Asia. Warships that sortie from Japanese ports could conduct operations along the East Asian littoral without refueling en route.”

Japan, then, forms a segment of a wall that commands offensive—not just defensive—potential for its holders. That being the case, the Japanese archipelago, home to the combined military power of the U.S.-Japan alliance, figures prominently in Chinese assessments of the American forward presence in Asia. Feng Liang and Duan Tingzhi argue that “from a comparative perspective of maritime power in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan’s current oceanic security strategy relies on an oceanic alliance based on Japan-U.S. sea power cooperation as its backstop. Whether it is measured by oceanic comprehensive national power or by naval capabilities, both countries are superior to China. Moreover, both possess favorable geographic advantages arising from island chain encirclement, a posture that can easily pressure China from the oceanic direction.” Feng and Duan clearly see a strategic bloc possessed of the resolve, capability, and geographic position to frustrate China’s maritime ambitions. Small wonder that they hope to eliminate the first island chain as a geostrategic weapon of the democracies.

Geopolitically minded commentators pay special attention to the Ryukyu Islands, which arc insolently from the Japanese home islands toward Taiwan. From an economic perspective, Chinese shipping depends heavily on the Osumi and Miyako Straits. The vast majority of seaborne traffic connecting Shanghai, Ningbo, and Hong Kong to markets in the United States and Canada passes through Osumi, a narrow sea located just south of Kyushu. It offers the most direct path to the great circle route, cutting transit distances by more than one thousand kilometers. Approximately a quarter of U.S.-China trade goes by this route. Indeed, Osumi is a preferred gateway even for southern Chinese ports. By contrast, merchant shipping bearing Chinese goods to Oceania and Central and South America frequently transits the Miyako Strait. For China, then, the Ryukyus are central both to coastwise trade within Asia and to trade across the Pacific Ocean.

From a military perspective, some fret that this crescent-shaped archipelago essentially closes off China from the Pacific. As Zhang Xiaowen notes, “The seas surrounding Japan’s so-called ‘Southwest Islands’ (referring to the large and small islands of Miyakojima, Ishigakijima, and the Senkakus southwest of Okinawa) constitute an important passageway constrained by the island chain that the Chinese navy must break through to enter the oceans.” Notably, Guo Yadong of the PLAN’s Naval Studies Institute justified the April 2010 transit of a ten-ship PLAN flotilla through the Ryukyus on concrete military grounds. Rapid advances in precision-guided weaponry, the need to train realistically under complex meteorological and electromagnetic conditions, and the requirement to bolster logistics on the open ocean all demand access to the high seas. For these reasons, exclaims Guo, “the Chinese navy’s march to the deep blue must shatter the bottleneck of the first island chain.”

Furthermore, the Ryukyu island chain constitutes a major staging area for American military power in the western Pacific. Professor Shen Weilie of the PLA’s NDU regards Okinawa as the “forward position” of a U.S. “westward strategy” in Asia. He notes that cities such as Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Xiamen lie within striking distance of the island, while U.S. forces could monitor or blockade the Osumi and Miyako Straits from there. Chinese strategists are also frank about the operational importance of this island perimeter to Japan during a cross-strait conflict. Aviation units forward-deployed along the Ryukyu chain, contends Li Zhi, would play a critical part in contesting PLA control of air and sea. Chinese analysts thus carefully track the military disposition of the Japan Self-Defense Force along the Ryukyus.

Japan, in short, constitutes a fortified barrier to China’s access to the western Pacific, and thence to the national greatness underlying the Chinese Dream. Puncturing that barrier through the narrow seas is pivotal as China strives toward lasting prosperity and influence.

The Korean Peninsula: The “Half Island”

Chinese definitions of the first island chain typically leave out the Korean Peninsula, much as Dean Acheson left the peninsula outside his American defense perimeter of the Pacific. After all, it is not an island. Korea nevertheless qualifies as a “half island,” surrounded as it is on three sides by the Yellow Sea, the Korea Strait, and the Sea of Japan. Though appended to eastern Eurasia, Korea inhabits an intensely nautical environment where local great powers converge and sometimes collide. Koreans refer to their homeland ruefully as “a shrimp among whales.” Its west coast bounds the Yellow Sea, while just 193 kilometers of water separate North Korea from the Shandong Peninsula. The east coast faces the Sea of Japan, home to the Russian Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok and Japan’s escort flotilla in Maizuru. One of Japan’s main islands, Kyushu, lies roughly 161 kilometers off South Korea’s southeastern coast. These are cramped quarters for sure.

None of this is lost on Chinese commentators. The Korea Strait, which divides South Korea and Kyushu, stands out for its economic and strategic importance to China. The strait not only facilitates communications between the east and west coasts of Korea, but also connects the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea. Seagoing Chinese trade must pass through the Korea Strait to reach Pusan and Vladivostok as well as Fukuoka and other Japanese coastal cities fronting on the Sea of Japan. Some freighters bound for North American seaports also pass through the strait to reach the great circle route. And if climate change opens new Arctic routes to Chinese shipping, cutting voyage distances and therefore costs, the Korea Strait could witness a substantial increase in mercantile traffic.

Strategically, Korea’s Jeju Island guards the strait’s western end while Japan’s Tsushima, Fukue, and Iki Islands form a menacing arc along the waterway’s eastern approaches. Major U.S. naval bases in Japan and South Korea surround the strait, including the bases at Sasebo, Pusan, and Chinhae. In 1986, during the late stages of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy identified the Korea Strait as one of sixteen invaluable choke points in the world. That it represents Northeast Asia’s only strategically crucial passageway has not escaped notice in Chinese circles.

Unsurprisingly, then, Chinese commentators see the Korea Strait as another location where the United States and its allies could bring pressure to bear against China. In an oblique reference to the United States, Guo Rui and Li Qiaoqian of Jilin University vouchsafe that “the Korean Peninsula’s current importance to China lies in its role as the strategic frontier of the hostile maritime power. Preventing the Korean Peninsula from falling completely into the adversary’s hands or becoming the hostile power’s strategic maritime passageway is very important to effectively protecting China’s national security.” Shi Chunlin and Li Xiuying, cited previously, are even more explicit about American power and intentions: “Thus far, the United States and its allies command the seas of the Korea Strait. In times of armed confrontation or war in Northeast Asia, they will very likely engage in blockade, cutting off navigation routes. As such, China must quickly build up its navy and strengthen its maritime deterrent power to safeguard the passage of Chinese shipping through the Korea Strait.”

Beyond the Korea Strait, the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea could also shackle China’s options in the Yellow Sea. Liu Feiguo and Zheng Fang, two scholars at the Naval University of Engineering, warn:

The United States, through the U.S.-Korea-Japan alliance, has engaged in continuous infiltration of China’s Yellow Sea and surrounding waters as an offensive tactic for defensive purposes. The intent is to hold back China’s maritime power behind the first island chain and to check Chinese actions in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. China’s main combatant fleet would face severe challenges as it would lose the maritime communications for operations in the Pacific.

Here again, geography colors how Chinese strategists appraise threats. The Korean half-island and the Japanese archipelago converge on key bodies of water while forming straits near China’s political and economic centers. Whether the U.S.–Japan–South Korea alignment can ever become a coherent strategic unit is dubious at best in light of the two Asian allies’ turbulent past. Nevertheless, Chinese observers find it unsettling that two U.S. allies boasting advanced economies and modern armed forces stand athwart sealanes essential to China’s security and economic health. Sowing disunion among the allies would partly ameliorate this dilemma—and thus represents a strategic imperative for Beijing.