Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

US island-chain containment against China doomed to fail

  • The Cold War scheme – resurrected with the addition of extra island chains – helps however to explain the real stories behind many headlines and controversies today

A BBC journalist asked me the other day about the role of Taiwan in the United States’ first island chain of defence against China, among other things. In the event, the interview didn’t go ahead because they wanted someone more “pro-China”. Imagine that! Note to self: need to work on my patriotic credentials; perhaps join the Communist Party, if they let me.

However, the question did set off several trains of thought. People nowadays argue endlessly about whether the increasingly bitter rivalry between the US and China amounts to a new cold war. There are of course similarities and differences, and we can all cherry-pick. But the US idea of a series of island chains of defence against China, which is actually a misnomer, is a direct legacy of the Cold War. Containment is a much better descriptor. You DEFEND your own home. But if you are using my home – while risking its destruction – as a buffer against an enemy, that’s anything but “defence”.

But where did this whole conception of island chain defences come from? That is actually a fascinating question. Interestingly, this quintessential Cold War idea didn’t become fully operative until more recently with China’s emergence as a potential pre-eminent Indo-Pacific power, yet its conceptualisation dated back to the early 1950s.

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John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state under Dwight Eisenhower, came up with it to prevent Mao Zedong’s China from spreading communism in Asia. It was also aimed at Soviet Russia by controlling access to sea lanes in the west Pacific. However, the subsequent Sino-Soviet break in the early 1960s, followed a decade later by China’s rapprochement with the US, made Dulles’ scheme less urgent – until recently.

By the way, many if not most of the worst excesses of the Cold War were the direct responsibility of Dulles and his brother Allen, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency during its most brutal period when it came to foreign subversions, coups, assassinations and regime change plots. But that’s a topic for another day.

The classic formulation of this defence scheme began with three island chains. Recently, more layers or chains of marine defence have been added to extend to the east coasts of Africa, across the Indian Ocean. That’s a lot of “China containment”, otherwise known as overkill.

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Understanding them helps explain some current controversies, which are almost always hidden by disinformation and propaganda, especially from the mainstream foreign media. The Chinese media are actually much more open and honest about such strategic discussions, if you can believe that. In fact, they are often a great source when it comes to geopolitical issues.

Taiwan plays the key role in the first chain that runs from the Japanese archipelago through northwest Philippines to Borneo. Of course, the island of Taiwan is much more in the calculus of US foreign policy, but its defence purpose is often underappreciated.

The second chain includes such places as western New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. Together, they form a Compact of Free Association with the US.

The third chain runs through the Aleutian Islands and the South Pacific, covering Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand. The New Zealand-Tonga-Hawaii link is especially important.

Seen in this light, you can see why the US and Australia went into a paroxysm over Beijing’s security and economic pact with the Solomon Islands and other diplomatic initiatives with its neighbours.

India jumps in as China plays Scrooge with Sri Lanka

More recently, Pentagon strategists are putting in place the fourth and fifth island chains. The fourth chain runs from the Indian union territory of the Lakshadweep Islands, through the Maldives and the Chagos Archipelago of which Diego Garcia is the largest island.

Here the hidden agendas behind many Western and particularly American criticisms and propaganda against China immediately make sense in this context. This fourth chain suffers serious breakpoints at the Gwadar port in Pakistan and the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. Gwadar is, of course, the backbone of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor while a Chinese port operator has a 99-year lease on Hambantota, which Washington implausibly claims could become a People’s Liberation Army naval base. The Chinese have just managed to dock a research ship at Hambantota, after initial refusal by Sri Lanka due to pressure from India.

So much for Washington’s noble concerns about the powers of Chinese debt traps!

The US operates a major military base out of Diego Garcia, with stationing facilities for nuclear weapons. That is the real reason why, against international law, Britain has rejected a judgment by the International Court of Justice in The Hague to return the Chagos to Mauritius.

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The fifth island chain, which runs along the east coasts of Africa to the southern bottom, is no doubt conceived to contain China’s one and only naval base, which is right next to the port of Doraleh in Djibouti. The US has on record about 750 military bases in at least 80 countries! Even the Russians have a lot more bases overseas than the Chinese.

Both the fourth and fifth island chain defences are most likely a response to the Belt and Road Initiative.

It’s not rocket science. There is nothing sophisticated or subtle about these island chain “defences” or their geopolitics. They basically mean the entire Pacific and Indian oceans are seen as military assets to be used by the US for whatever purposes, in this case, containment and encirclement against China. That is typical of how imperial, neo-imperial or hegemonic power thinks.

In this context, China’s naval ambitions in the Pacific and its Belt and Road Initiative are not about “taking over the world” but natural – defensive – responses to containment and encirclement.