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.
“(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.”
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.
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.