Skip to main content Accessibility help

Barriers, Springboards and Benchmarks: China Conceptualizes the Pacific “Island Chains”*

  • Andrew S. Erickson (a1) and Joel Wuthnow (a2)


US government reports describe Chinese-conceived “island chains” in the Western Pacific as narrow demarcations for Chinese “counter-intervention” operations to defeat US and allied forces in altercations over contested territorial claims. The sparse scholarship available does little to contest this excessively myopic assertion. Yet, further examination reveals meaningful differences that can greatly enhance an understanding of Chinese views of the “island chains” concept, and with it important aspects of China's efforts to develop as a maritime power. Long before China had a navy or naval strategists worthy of the name, the concept had originated and been developed for decades by previous great powers vying for Asia-Pacific influence. Today, China's own authoritative interpretations are flexible, nuanced and multifaceted – befitting the multiple and sometimes contradictory factors with which Beijing must contend in managing its meteoric maritime rise. These include the growing importance of sea lane security at increasing distances and levels of operational intensity.

美国政府报告把中国设想的西太平洋 “岛链” 概念描述为中国军队为在有关领土争端的 “反干涉”作战中试图打败美国和盟国部队而设立的狭窄的界线。寥寥无几的相关研究对这个过于短视的看法也没有提出不同意见。然而, 进一步的分析却发现此概念有迥然不同的含义。这些含义能大大增强我们对中国为发展成为一个海洋大国所做出的努力的理解。这个概念是在中国有一个现代的海军或海军战略家之前由其他有影响力的大国为争夺亚太地区的影响力而发展起来的。如今, 中国对此概念的权威解释显示出其灵活性, 微妙性和多面性。这些解释特征恰恰能与北京在管理其海上崛起过程中许多有时是相互矛盾的因素相适应。这些因素包括由于不断增大距离和活动强度所导致的海上通道安全日益增长的重要性。


Corresponding author

Email: (corresponding author).


Hide All

These are the authors’ personal views, and not those of their respective institutions. For comments on earlier drafts, the authors thank Dennis Blasko, M. Taylor Fravel, Ryan D. Martinson, Ivan Rasmussen, Al Willner, and three anonymous reviewers.



Hide All
Acheson, Dean. 1951. “Remarks by the secretary of state (Acheson) before the National Press Club, Washington, January 12, 1950.” In Dennett, Raymond and Turner, Robert (eds.), Documents on American Foreign Relations, Vol. 12: January 1–December 31, 1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 426433.
Bai, Yanlin. 2007. “Daolian shang de shijie haijun” (The world navies on the island chains). Dangdai haijun 10(October), 10–20.
Bi, Xinglin (ed.). 2002. Zhanyi lilun xuexi zhinan (Campaign Theory Study Guide). Beijing: Guofang daxue chubanshe.
Cheng, Dean. 2011. “Sea power and the Chinese state: China's maritime ambitions.” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder Report No. 2576, 11 July, Accessed 21 December 2015.
Cliff, Roger. 2011. “Anti-access measures in Chinese defense strategy.” Testimony before the US–China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington, DC, 27 January.
Cole, Bernard. 2010. The Great Wall at Sea: China's Navy in the Twenty-First Century (2nd ed.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
Cole, Bernard. 2014. “Island chains and naval classics.US Naval Institute Proceedings 140(11), 6873.
Dan, Jie, and Ju, Lang. 2005. “Fei xiang Zhongguo de ‘ni huo’ he ‘xiong’” ([Russian] “Backfire” and “Bear” [Strategic Bombers] to fly to China). Jianzai wuqi March, 12–16.
Ding, Zhaolun. 2011. “Qiaokai weilai haizhan zhisheng zhi men” (Knock open the gate of winning future sea battles), Renmin haijun, 11 March.
Du, Jingchen. 2010. “Ba yuanhai dayang dangzuo ‘lian bing chang’” (Regard the distant seas and oceans as training areas), Renmin haijun, 18 May.
Feng, Liang, and Duan, Tingzhi. 2007. “Zhongguo haiyang diyuan anquan tezheng yu xin shiji haishang anquan zhanlüe” (Characteristics of China's sea geostrategic security and sea security strategy in the new century). Zhongguo junshi kexue 1, 2229.
Flynn, Michael. 2014. “Annual threat assessment.” Statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Washington, DC, 11 February.
Fravel, M. Taylor, and Christopher, Twomey. 2015. “Projecting strategy: the myth of Chinese counter-intervention.” The Washington Quarterly 37(4), 171187.
Friedman, B.A. 2015. 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
Fuell, Lee. 2014. “Broad trends in Chinese air force and missile modernization.” Testimony presented to the US–China Economic Security Review Commission, Washington, DC, 30 January.
Guoji zhanwang. 2005. “Meiguo yingpai renwu zai fang kuangyan – toushi Meiguo kongzhong daji Zhongguo jihua” (Members of the US “hawk faction” rave again: a perspective on a US plan to attack China from the air). Guoji zhanwang 9, 2728.
Hammes, T.X. 2012. “Offshore control: a proposed strategy for an unlikely conflict.” Strategic Forum 278, 114.
Hattendorf, John, Simpson, B. Mitchell and Wadleigh, John R.. 1984. Soldiers and Scholars: The Centennial History of the US Naval War College. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press.
Holmes, James. 2011. “Integrated Chinese saturation attacks: Mahan's logic, Mao's grammar.” In Erickson, Andrew and Goldstein, Lyle (eds.), Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 407422.
Huang, Alexander. 1994. “The Chinese navy's offshore active defense strategy: conceptualization and implications.” Naval War College Review 47(3), 732.
Hui, Zhu. 2009. Zhanlüe kongjun lun (Strategic Air Force). Beijing: Lantian chubanshe.
Kaplan, Robert. 2010. “The geography of Chinese power.” Foreign Affairs 89(3), 2241.
Krepinevich, Andrew F. Jr. 2015. “How to deter China: the case for archipelagic defense.Foreign Affairs 94(2),
Li, Yihu. 2007. “Cong hailu erfen dao hailu xichou – dui Zhongguo hailu guanxi de zai shenshi” (Sea and land power: from dichotomy to overall planning – a review of the relationship between sea and land power). Xiandai guoji guanxi 8, 17.
Liang, Fang. 2011. Haishang zhanlüe tongdao lun (On Maritime Strategic Access). Beijing: Shishi chubanshe.
Liu, Huaqing. 2004. Liu Huaqing huiyi lü (Memoirs of Liu Huaqing). Beijing: Jiefangjun chubanshe.
Lou, Douzi. 2004. “Tizhi bianzhi tiaozheng hou, kan haijun kongjun de bu shi (yi)” (Looking at navy and air force dispositions following establishment restructuring (part 1)), Jiefangjun bao, 14 July.
Ma, Guangwu. 2011. Zhongguo heping fazhan zhong de qiangjun zhanlüe (The Strong Army Strategy in China's Peaceful Development). Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe.
MacArthur, Douglas. 1951. “Old soldiers never die…” Typescript speech for address given 19 April, Library of Congress, Accessed 10 December 2015.
McDevitt, Michael. 2011. “The PLA navy's antiaccess role in a Taiwan contingency.” In Saunders, Phillip C., Yung, Christopher, Swaine, Michael and Yang, Andrew Nien-dzu (eds.), The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles. Washington, DC: NDU Press, 191214.
Miller, Edward. 1991. War Plan Orange: The US Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897–1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
Muller, David. 1983. China as a Maritime Power. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Nathan, Andrew J. 1996. “China's goals in the Taiwan Strait.” The China Journal 35, 8793.
Office of the Secretary of Defense. 2011. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China. Washington, DC: DoD.
Office of the Secretary of Defense. 2012. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China. Washington, DC: DoD.
Office of the Secretary of Defense. 2015. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China. Washington, DC: DoD.
Peattie, Mark. 1988. Nan‘yō: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese in Micronesia, 1885–1945. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Peng, Guangqian, and Yao, Youzhi (eds.). 2005. The Science of Military Strategy. Beijing: Military Science Press.
PLAN Headquarters. 2012. Zhongguo haijun junren shouce (Handbook of PLA Navy Personnel). Beijing: Haichao chubanshe.
Qingnian cankao. 2012. “Zhongguo haijun mouhua pojie ‘daolian fengsuo’” (China's navy plots to break through the “island chain blockade”), 31 October.
Run, Jiaqi. 2014. “Zhuanjia cheng Zhongguo junshi liliang poshi Meiguo cong diyi daolian xiang hou shousuo” (Experts say China's military power has forced the United States to retreat from the First Island Chain), Renmin wang, 8 October.
Sharman, Christopher H. 2015. “China moves out: stepping stones toward a new maritime strategy.” China Strategic Perspectives 9, 160.
Swenson-Wright, John. 2005. Unequal Allies? United States Security and Alliance Policy toward Japan, 1945–1960. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
US Department of State. 1948. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.
Vego, Milan. 1992. Soviet Naval Tactics. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
Vego, Milan. 2014. Major Fleet-versus-Fleet Operations in the Pacific War, 1941–1945. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press.
Wachman, Alan. 2007. Why Taiwan? Geostrategic Rationales for China's Territorial Integrity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Wang, Jing (ed.). 2004. “Mei hangmu zai Taiwan zhouwei yanxi shenme (er)” (What exercises are the US aircraft carrier conducting around Taiwan? Part 2), CCTV International, 19 June.
Wang, Weixing, and Teng, Jianqun. 2000. “Air-launched cruise missiles are hanging at Asia's door,” Jiefangjun bao, 6 September, 12.
Whitney, Courtney. 1956. MacArthur: His Rendezvous with History. New York: Knopf.
Willard, Robert. 2011. “Statement of Admiral Robert F. Willard, US Navy.” Statement before the House Armed Services Committee, Washington, DC, 6 April.
Wu, Qingli, and Xie, Jingsheng. 2004. “Toushi Meijun quanqiu junli da tiaozheng” (Analysis of global force readjustment by the US military), Jiefangjun bao, 1 September, 12.
Xu, Changyin. 2010. “Zhandou jianting biandui yuanhang zonghe baozhang wenti qietan” (Preliminary discussion on issues in comprehensive support of warship formations during long-distance voyages), Renmin haijun, 6 December.
Xu, Qi. 2004. “21 shiji chu haishang diyuan zhanlüe yu Zhongguo haijun de fazhan” (Maritime geostrategy and the development of the Chinese navy in the early 21st century). Zhongguo junshi kexue 59(4), 7581.
Xu, Xikang. 2011. “Yi Liu Huaqing siling de haijun zhanlüe” (Recalling Commander Liu Huaqing's naval strategy), Zhongguo shehui kexue bao, 20 June.
Yu, Yang, and Qi, Xiaodong. 2005. “Meijun jidi da tiaozheng: miaozhun ‘xian fazhi ren’ bai bing bu zhen” (Major realignment of US military bases: deployment aimed at launching “preemptive strikes”), Zhongguo guofang bao, 19 April, 2.
Zhang, Qingbao, and Lin, Xiaoying. 2013. “Zheili de diqing bu jia yinhao” (Here, the enemy situation is no longer in quotation marks), Renmin haijun, 13 May.
Zhang, Shiping. 2009. Zhongguo haiquan (China's Sea Power). Beijing: Renmin ribao chubanshe.
Zhongguo guoji guanxi yanjiuyuan. 2005. Guoji zhanlüe yu anquan xingshi pinggu 2004–2005 (Review of the International Strategic and Security Situation 2004–2005). Beijing: Shishi chubanshe.
Zhongguo junshi kexue yuan. 2013. Zhanlüe xue (Science of Strategy). Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe.
Zu, Ming. 2006. “Meiguo zhu xi taiping diqu haijun bingli bushu yu jidi tixi shiyitu” (A schematic diagram of the US naval forces deployed and system of bases in the Western Pacific). Jianchuan zhishi 2(January), 24.
Zuo, Liping. 2013. “Hangmu biandui chicheng hai zhangchang de daguo de zhong jian” (Carrier battle group gallops to the sea battlefield, is the strong sword of a great nation), Renmin haijun, 3 December.



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed