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Asia Pacific

From Island Building to Island Hopping: Is China’s South China Sea Strategy Viable?


In a tumultuous world, it takes a lot to make the headlines. Competing with the ongoing debacle in Syria, the refugee crisis splitting Europe apart, the possibility of Brexit and the flamboyant extravaganza of a US election featuring Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is difficult: even issues afflicting important states like Ukraine or Brazil often fail to make the front pages. So it is interesting to see the headline status give to China’s placement of two anti-aircraft missile batteries on a disputed island in the Paracel archipelago. It is an accurate reflection of the fact that over and under the placid waters of the South China Sea, the world’s three largest economies[1] are rattling their sabers, and that the possibility of war by accident or design cannot be dismissed.

The Chinese deployment was not by itself of tremendous significance. Woody Island is disputed with Vietnam, along with the rest of the Paracel Island chain, but since the Vietnamese Navy has been twice beaten[2] into a cocked hat by the Chinese Navy, the probability of military conflict is low. Woody Island is also a real island, with all that this implies under maritime law: an exclusion zone to military navigation and a right to control the airspace above it. It is not contentious in the way that the occupation and reclamation of the more uninhabitable rocks and the sparser coral atolls in the region has become. The international Law of the Sea grants neither an exclusion zone nor air control rights to these man-made islands, a point repeatedly pressed by the US Navy in its freedom of navigation transits near the more adventurous Chinese claims in the Spratly Islands, such as Fiery Cross Reef near the Philippines.


China’s interest in the area predate the current Communist government by several centuries. The Song Dynasty established China’s first permanent navy in 1132 AD to protect the Empire’s trading fleets, whose junks already traveled as far as the Red Sea. However, it was the Ming Dynasty that really came to value the power of a navy, using it to help overthrow the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty in 1363; to conquer Northern Vietnam in 1407; and then combining with a Korean fleet to defeat a Japanese invasion of the peninsula in 1598. The Ming navy was by no means used only against Asian rivals:

  • In the First (1521) and Second (1522) Battles of Tamao, the Chinese defeated Portuguese fleets of caravels, which had recently established a fort in Tamao (Tuen Mun) on the mouth of the Tuen Mun River, near modern Hong Kong;
  • In the battles of Penghu, Liaoluo Bay and the siege of Fort Zeelandia , Ming naval forces decisively defeated the fleets of the Dutch East India Company and local Taiwanese allies. This resulted in the establishment of Ming control over Taiwan, which was being colonized by the Dutch at that time.

These victories over the most aggressive of the European states colonizing Asia established the strength of China and prevented any further encroachment on her territories and dependencies for almost 200 years.


The newly installed Ming Emperor Yongle funded a vast expedition led by Admiral Zheng He, who undertook seven voyages between 1405 and 1433. The voyages of this “Treasure Fleet” are a classic in power projection: they carried the Ming Emperor’s flag, ambassadors and displays of wealth to “subject” kingdoms from the Sultanate of Malacca to the Straits of Hormuz and beyond. In the process, Admiral Zheng He destroyed pirate navies and overthrew local rules in Sumatra and Ceylon. This was the height of Chinese naval power, never to be exceeded, and comparable with the voyages of discovery made by Portuguese and Spanish explorers later in the century[3]. These voyages are the basis for China’s claim today to the entire South China Sea, citing ancient navigational maps left behind by the intrepid Admiral and other Ming mariners.

Today over 5 trillion dollars of world trade transit the South China Sea, making it one of the most important waterways in the world. Of course, the economy most dependent on these sea lanes and least able to reroute trade is: China. While the undersea oil and gas deposits are often cited as a major reason for China’s interest, food is probably at least as important: the shallow, reef-filled waters hold a significant percentage of the world’s remaining fishing stocks and an unparalleled marine biodiversity. Both of these assets are under grave threat by the untrammeled reef-destruction and island building being undertaken by all claimants, with China at the forefront. Not only economics but also China’s geography dictate a fundamental strategic need to control the seas bordering her densely populated coast: with the exception of the Mongols, all foreign threats to China have come from the sea[4].

The island building strategy makes sense from this political perspective. “Planting the flag” has always been an effective means of establishing sovereignty over a territory; as Eddie Izzard might say “no flag, no country.” This strategy is also aligned with China’s overwhelming superiority in economic and military power; the PLA(N)[5] dwarfs its regional competitors in the South China Sea, while the Chinese military budget is orders of magnitude larger than its nearest competitor: in fact, it is an order of magnitude greater than the sum of the defense outlays of all its South China Sea rivals combined. The economic and financial leverage enjoyed by Beijing is on a similar scale, which is why PRC negotiators have always rejected a multilateral negotiation on the status of the SCS. In bilateral talks, they hold all the cards.


The military implications of the island-building strategy are less obviously beneficial to China. It is an advantage to have airstrips and port facilities in advanced locations, but only if they can be defended. Otherwise they can become a liability: a location that requires resupply and defense which can quickly draw in a disproportionate amount of resources.

Take the Japanese and American experiences in the Second World War. Imperial Japan seized a vast number of islands and atolls across a wide belt of the Pacific from the Marianas to New Guinea and one of the principal purposes was to create a defensive barrier to keep the American and British navies as far from the Home Islands as possible. That strategy backfired when the Americans developed a strategy that exploited its weaknesses:

  1. The need to resupply so many far-flung bases gave the US submarine force a wonderful opportunity to ravage the enemy’s merchant marine. Though most people remember the German U-boats and the Battle of the Atlantic, the American sub fleet crippled Japan’s war effort to an even greater extent;
  2. The desire to take or defend these remote bases led to some of the most critical battles of the Pacific War. The Battle of Midway developed as a Japanese trap to force the Americans to defend the Marine base on the atoll with the carriers that had escaped Pearl Harbor and thus destroy them. The Americans, through better cryptology, turned the tables and sank 4 fleet carriers and a heavy cruiser – the biter bit. The US also lost a carrier and a destroyer, but the outcome was a strategic defeat for the Imperial Navy.

    Guadalcanal[6] was a grinding attritional battle over 6 months in the torrid Solomon Islands where both sides committed more and more resources to an island 87 miles long and 30 miles. The Allied force commitment, mostly US Marines, increased from 14,000 during the initial landings to 60,000 by the end of the campaign. The Japanese initially had about 3,700 personnel on the islands, many of them Korean laborers rather than soldiers. Over the next six months, they funneled 36,000 troops onto the embattled isle, with more than half of them killed or captured. The Japanese also lost 38 ships and approximately 700 aircraft while the Allies lost 29 ships and 600 aircraft in the first of many meat grinder battles in the Pacific Theater.


These outcomes were not due to Japanese or American stupidity, but to the problems inherent to defending fixed positions. Having chosen them, the defender must continually supply them: even when not actively engaged in combat operations, military forces consume an enormous quantity of fuel, food, parts and other sundries which must all be brought in by ship or air. These shipments are choice targets for attack by the attacker, and logistical attrition can slow or stop a campaign just as the sinking of Italian convoys imposed a fatal drag on Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The defender must then protect these shipments, which divert military resources from other operations while also exposing them to enemy attack. Additionally, the defender cannot be strong everywhere. The attacker will always have the luxury of deciding which point to attack, and thus be able to mass a superiority of troops and equipment at that point, even if the balance of forces is more balanced over all. The advantages[7] of initiative, surprise, and mass are thus with the attacker at the outset of any campaign and the defender will be left to react to this effort through reinforcement: but the reinforcement itself will be subject to detection and attack, since the attacker knows it will be coming and where the endpoint must be.

How do these principles and historical examples apply to China’s strategic situation? The development of PRC military capabilities, particularly in the PLA(N), has been in support of five key strategic objectives[8] outlined in a Congressional review of the PRC’s naval modernization program:

  1. Maintain a military option for intervention in Taiwan, if necessary[9];
  2. Asserting and defending claims to territories in the East and South China Seas;
  3. Enforcing China’s self-proclaimed right to regulate foreign military activities in its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone[10];
  4. Exert Chinese influence and displace US influence in the Western Pacific;
  5. Demonstrate Chinese capabilities and status as a regional and global power.

I would add a sixth objective:

  1. Develop the capability to project power in defense of Chinese interests and commerce beyond the immediately surrounding sea zones.

To accomplish this, the PLA(N) has spent the past 15 years or so making large investments in improving their force structure: moving away from a focus on quantity and focusing on designing and building more modern, more capable multi-purpose platforms. China has built far more ships than the size of her considerable fleet would indicate, and that is because the PLA(N) has been retiring obsolescent designs almost as quickly as the new craft have been introduced.


A good example of this development is the evolution of the amphibious warfare fleet. China initially build a large number of small, simple and short-range transports capable of landing 5 to 10 tanks and perhaps a company of infantry. These ships were built in large number and their purpose was to swarm across 150 miles of the Taiwan Strait and swamp the defenders on the beaches. However each subsequent generation of ship has been larger and introduced greater capabilities, including helicopter decks, deck wells to launch air-cushioned vehicles, and helicopter hangars. The newest generation Type 071 Yuzhao is classified as a landing platform/dock, roughly comparable to the American San Antonio class with the capacity to transport a full naval infantry battalion with its equipment, 15 to 20 armored vehicles, 4 helicopters, 4 air-cushioned landing craft, and fully capable of blue water operations far from Chinese coastal waters.


Along with these enhanced capabilities, fruit of the modernization effort, China has built a sophisticated and multi-layered anti-access area denial defense (A2/AD) with the overriding purpose of preventing the US Navy from interfering in any potential conflict with Taiwan.  The strategy is centered on the Second Artillery Corps, the PLA command in charge of China’s mobile ballistic missiles and land-based cruise missiles. Batteries of hypersonic DF-21 and DF-26 intermediate range missiles with terminal maneuvering warheads are known as “carrier-killers” and their purpose is just that: destroy any US fleet carrier so foolish as to venture within range, a range that extends out to Guam. The launchers are highly mobile, making them difficult to target, and they lay behind formidable defenses designed to protect them: passive array radar reputed to be effective at detecting fifth generation stealth aircraft; S-300 and S-400 SAM batteries; short-range anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles; advanced J-15 and J-16 multirole fighters. All of these systems combined present a formidable problem for any American Task Force commander.


The defenses are formidable, but they are focused on preventing an enemy fleet from approaching the Chinese mainland; their lethality degrades the farther one goes from the coast. The short-range missiles cannot reach much farther than Taiwan, while the land-based aircraft, radar and SAM defenses also have a limited reach. The farther disputed islands of the Scarborough Reef and Spratly Islands are at the limit of the (estimated) combat radius of Chinese land-based fighters flying from Hainan Island. Both locations are much closer to the Philippine military installations at Subic Bay and Tiniguiban in Palawan. Even without Philippine cooperation in a Sino-American conflict, US carriers operating from the Sulu Sea would be well-positioned to launch attacks on these bases.


The islands themselves would undoubtedly contain their own multi-layered defense, a reproduction in miniature of the systems guarding the mainland. The effectiveness of these defenses would suffer from one key factor: China is vast while the islands are very, very small. The small size of the islands in question means that the overall amount of equipment that can reasonably be placed on them is already limited; and the lack of dispersion inherent in the situation increases their vulnerability to precision guided weapons. There are only so many places to hide in 5 square miles of flat, sandy scrub. That makes these islands highly vulnerable.

Seizing these outlying islands would be a viable US strategy in any conflict with China. It would bring numerous important benefits, both tactical and strategic, while limiting risks at the start of the campaign. On the tactical level:

  1. It would remove the threat of Chinese aircraft and sub operating from these bases and closing the South China Sea to US or Allied forces;
  2. It would provide convenient bases, once repaired, to deploy US Air Force land-based aircraft to supplement the Navy fleet air arms, as well as for US and Allied submarines to penetrate the South China Sea;
  3. It might draw Chinese reinforcement or relief efforts that would enable US forces to engage and destroy them outside the area of greatest effectiveness of China’s A2/AD envelope. In the event of a conflict, the US would like nothing better than to draw a significant part of the Chinese fleet far from its bases and maul it;

The strategic benefits of targeting these islands would also be large:

  1. Seizing these bases would reassure any engaged or potential US allies in the region, especially the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam;
  2. Assuming the US would not start a conflict with China, American forces would initially find themselves on the defensive, just as in World War 2. These islands would provide a means to take the initiative in a secondary theater, potentially distracting and diverting Chinese forces from the primary theater (most likely Taiwan, Japan, South Korea or some combination of the three).
  3. Capture of these islands would also provide a morale booster to US and Allied forces and populations to offset the losses one could expect from an initial Chinese attack that achieves any degree of surprise.
  4. The islands themselves could become useful bargaining chips in peace negotiations.

In other words, the US might find itself engaged in a sort of modern island-hopping campaign, wearing down Chinese naval and air forces as American and Allied task forces slowly approach the Chinese mainland. As PLA(N) and PLAAF capabilities are degraded, the US would retain the initiative by shifting the focus of strikes to different points along the line of the fixed defenses. Eventually, the ring would close enough to permit landings on Taiwan and the liberation of that island from occupying forces. That would seem to be a more likely plan than a direct approach to Taiwan into the teeth of the Second Artillery Corps missile batteries.

While China derives important political benefits in peace time from its island building activities as part of its “salami-slicing” tactics in the South China Sea, it is actually providing the US Navy with future hostages in the event of war. The islands and reefs of the SCS are too small to provide an adequate defense in depth on their own resources and they are far enough from the mainland to be vulnerable to US navy task forces assigned to occupy them. If conflict broke out between the two great powers[11], the US could profitably pursue a new “island hopping” strategy against China.

Sources and Notes

[1] And numerous smaller, but strategically important, states as well. Although Japan is not directly involved in the South China Sea disputes, it has several open disputes with China in the East China Sea, especially the one simmering over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands. It is thus keenly interested in Chinese activities, supportive of the other claimants, and eager to avoid any settlements or precedents prejudicial to its own interests.

[2] Battle of the Paracel Islands (1974) and Johnson South Reef Skirmish (1988). To be fair, the former skirmish was against the South Vietnamese Navy.

[3] The one way distance between Shanghai-Surubaya-Aden is approximately 12,200 kilometers. The one way distance between Cádiz-Bariay, Cuba is approximately 6,800 kilometers. Of course, Admiral Zheng He had far more knowledge of this destination and many more intermediate ports to visit than Christopher Columbus did in his voyage; but Columbus did not have to negotiate with sophisticated and powerful local rulers in his expeditions. The dangers of the sea and the need to care for ships and men were the same for both navigators. It is interesting to note that the distance from Shanghai to Los Angeles is approximately 10,500 kilometers; but any Chinese ship sailing east towards North America would do so against the prevailing trade winds, an impossible feat for vessels of that era. The only practical route would be to sail north of Hokkaido and into the far Northern Pacific, where the prevailing winds blow towards the Americas. But what could possibly tempt any Chinese Emperor to fund such a voyage into the bleak and hostile north?


[4] Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Germany, the United States and most importantly Japan have all attempted to or actually carved out pieces of Chinese territory during the “Century of Humiliations.” Russia too has taken nominally Chinese territory, but the Amur River basin is far to the north of the “heartland” region between the Pearl, Yellow and Yangtse rivers, while the center of Russian power is 15,000 miles away over some of the most difficult terrain known to man. The threat from the sea can immediately and without warning strike the most important cities and factories of China, as Japan demonstrated in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 to 1945.

[5] The Chinese Navy is officially called the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which is a most inauspicious name as any sailor would agree.

[6] Guadalcanal was only one of the islands targeted, Tulagi and Florida were also invaded.

[7] Mass, initiative and surprise are three of the principles of war, the exact number and definition of which varies from country to country. The British define 10 principles, the US 9, the Soviet Union and Russians define 12 principles; but the first three are common to all modern doctrines, were formalized by Carl von Clausewitz and have been around at least since Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”.

[8] Ronald O’Rourke, Specialist in Naval Affairs, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 01 June 2015

[9] Such as in the event of a Taiwanese unilateral declaration of independence

[10] The International Law of the Sea – which China has signed but which the US has not – grants the EEC, but not a right to regulate “innocent passage” of military vessels in that zone.

[11] God forbid.

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