China Is Competing With The U.S. For Military Control Over The Whole Western Pacific

a large ship in the background: <span>J-15 fighter jets are seen on the flight deck of China&rsquo;s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, as it arrives in Hong Kong waters on July 7, 2017, less than a week after a high-profile visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)</span> © Provided by Forbes Media LLC J-15 fighter jets are seen on the flight deck of China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, as it arrives in Hong Kong waters on July 7, 2017, less than a week after a high-profile visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping… If you follow military rivalries in East Asia, start by learning the term “first island chain.” That term refers to the Kuril Islands of Russia, the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, the northern Philippines and Borneo. If strung together on a map from north to south they form a chain past which China was informally blocked from push its military influence eastward into the open U.S.-dominated Pacific Ocean.

Now China is out to change that.  An intelligence aircraft that it flew Saturday near southern outlying islands of Japan came as a recent example. The mission hackles in nearby Taiwan, which had watched a Chinese aircraft carrier encircle it nearly a year ago. In August, Taiwan sighted Chinese planes three times.

a close up of a map: <span>China&rsquo;s &ldquo;First Island Chain&rdquo; &ndash; Design by Luke Kelly/Forbes Staff</span> © Provided by Forbes Media LLC China’s “First Island Chain” – Design by Luke Kelly/Forbes Staff

China wants its world third-ranked armed forces to vie with No. 1, the United States, for influence in the western Pacific instead of being held in check behind the island chain.

“(The Saturday flight) fits a growing Chinese pattern of operating naval vessels and military aircraft beyond the ‘first island chain,’” says Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review in Washington. “They want to project power there and ultimately push the U.S. further back, or be seen as able to do so.”

Historic U.S. control

The United States and Japan normally police much of the island chain to keep China, their old Cold War foe and rival in modern diplomacy, from passing through.  Washington has held annual joint exercises with Manila, as well, and it sells advanced weapons to Taiwan.

“Sealed off by the occupants of the islands, the chain would present a formidable barrier to exit from or entry into the (east and south) China Seas,” the American research institution RAND Corp. says in a 2014 commentary. “This is an ideal opportunity for mischief-making at the PLA Navy’s expense. Contingents scattered on and around the islands and straits comprising the first island chain could give Beijing a bad day” in the case of “geopolitical controversy.”

a large ship in a body of water: <span>China&rsquo;s aircraft carrier Liaoning (top L) sails past residential tower blocks in Hong Kong on July 7, 2017. (RICHARD A. BROOKS/AFP/Getty Images)</span> © Provided by Forbes Media LLC China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning (top L) sails past residential tower blocks in Hong Kong on July 7, 2017. (RICHARD A. BROOKS/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. military has dominated the Pacific east of the island chain since the end of World War II. Over that time Japan has become a U.S. ally and China has focused more on big domestic issues than military expansion. Today the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Fleet patrols the western Pacific with some 200 ships and submarines, nearly 1,200 aircraft and more than 130,000 personnel.

Tokyo has backed that fleet through a U.S.-Japan security alliance. Their teamwork has grown from a 1951 deal on U.S. bases in Japan to training and exercises that bind U.S. troops with Japan’s military, which ranks as the world’s seventh strongest.

Enter China

China announced through official news media in 2013 it had “fulfilled its long-held dream of breaking through” the island chain after ships passed between Japan and Russia. The same year Beijing began regular air and naval missions to Japanese-controlled East China Sea waters where it disputes Tokyo’s claim to eight uninhabited islets. Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to tighten command over the military now so it gets better at farther-flung overseas missions, which in turn complement an across-the-board rise in China’s international clout.

China’s intelligence aircraft as seen over the weekend “sends a message” around Asia that it “has its own sphere of influence and there’s a new normal,” says Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. Beijing’s military probably hopes other countries drop any protests as it does reconnaissance of facilities operated by its Asian neighbors and the United States, he says. China has the same right as any other country to the high seas, Huang adds. “You can’t say China’s exercises are violating existing rules,” he says.

Ralph Jennings, Contributor

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