First island chain

The first island chain refers to the first chain of major archipelagos out from the East Asian continental mainland coast. Principally composed of the Kuril Islands, Japanese Archipelago, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan (Formosa), the northern Philippines, and Borneo; from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Malay Peninsula. Some definitions of the first island chain anchor the northern end on the Russian Far East coast north of Sakhalin Island, with Sakhalin Island being the first link in the chain.[1] However, others consider the Aleutians as the farthest north-eastern first link in the chain.[2] The first island chain forms one of three island chain doctrines within the Island Chain Strategy.

The first island chain perimeter (marked in red).

The first island chain has its purpose in Chinese military doctrine. The People's Republic of China views the first island chain as the area it must secure and disable from American bases, aircraft and aircraft-carrier groups, if in defending itself it must tactically unleash a pre-emptive attack against an enemy. The aim of the doctrine is to seal off the Yellow Sea, South China Sea and East China Sea inside an arc running from the Aleutians in the north to Borneo in the south.[3] According to reports by American think tanks CSBA and RAND, by 2020, China will be well on its way to having the means to achieve its first island chain policy.[4]

Geographic locationEdit

The first island chain is roughly situated in waters claimed and controlled by the PRC. These include the South China Sea, within the Nine-Dash Line, the East China Sea within the Okinawa Trough. The boundary between Okinawa and China lies between Japan and Taiwan.

Strategic valueEdit

US General Douglas MacArthur pointed out that before World War II, the US protected its western shores with a line of defense from Hawaii, Guam, to the Philippines. However this line of defense was attacked by Japan with the Pearl Harbor bombing of 1941, thereby drawing the US into the war. The US subsequently launched the air Raid on Taipei (Taiwan at the time part of Japan's empire) and launched the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The WW2 victory allowed the US to expand its line of defense further east to the coast of Asia, and thus the US controlled the first island chain.[5]

Between the end of WW2 and the Korean War, MacArthur praised Taiwan, located at the midpoint of the first island chain, as an 'unsinkable aircraft carrier'.[6] Meanwhile Mao Zedong launched a series of invasions of Taiwan but failed.

In 1950 the PRC attempted to break through the US line of defense, but failed due to the naval superiority of the US Seventh Fleet. For 30 years, PRC ships were unable to pass between north and south mainland ports. In 1968 the PRC made a detour through the Pacific Ocean by the Opening of the South-North route. By 1979 shipping resumed across the Taiwan strait.

During the Cold War and after the Korean war, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the 'Taiwan-US mutual defense pact' with the ROC (now terminated). It officially included Taiwan within the first island chain. For the purpose of containing the PRC, the US provided assistance (economic and other) to anti-communist regimes in East Asian islands.

Taiwan and the Philippines are the weakest links in the chain; Taiwan lacking international status and the Philippines lacking sufficient military strength. Coupled with a string of political, economic, and diplomatic factors; the weak defense in the past 20 years; as well as the growing economic dependence of other Southeast Asian neighbors on mainland China; the PRC has been able to penetrate through this weak point. This has worried the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc. Hence the US and China maintain a 'frightful balance' (恐怖平衡) along the chain.

In 2014 April, the United States Naval Academy assessed that the first island chain is the most effective point to counter any PLA invasion. The US can cut off the PLA Navy from entering the western Pacific, but also through the defense of other first chain countries predict the movements of the PLA. The US and first chain countries are able to coordinate because of the US military's freedom of navigation in the first chain block. US troops can effectively defend and counterattacks by the PLA. Especially if other first chain countries deploy their own underwater mines, submarine, and high-speed warships, the PLA stands little chance. According to the PLA, to dealing with these countermeasures requires greater naval technology and saving manpower costs.[7]

In 2016 December 9, Sina news detailed the US military force configuration in the first chain, including[8]

  1. naval bases and reconnaissance aircraft docked at Japan's aircraft carrier fleet
  2. the US military's most advanced F-35, F-22, F-15, and F-16 fighter jets totalling 110 bases
  3. South Korea entering a state of war and deploying THAAD, with a detection range of 3500 km, in response to North Korean missile threats
  4. annual military exercises cooperation between the US, Philippines, and Thailand
  5. THAAD and a growing bomber fleet in Guam's second island chain, which supports the first.[8]


In the 'blockade chain' of the first island chain, Taiwan is the most critical. It is located at the midpoint of the first chain and occupies a strategic position. Controlling Taiwan can effectively cut off the strategic chokepoint between the East and South seas. It also provides a convenient channel to the second island chain, as well as to the rest of the Pacific.

Chinese mainlandEdit

Given that Japan is wary of China breaking through the first chain, Professor Meng Xiangqing of the PLA National Defence University Research Institute interviewed with the Global Times. Meng said there is a misconception that Japan is traditionally a sea-based country whereas China is land-based country. He said this view is false and that to the contrary, Zheng He sailed to the west, and for at least 2500 years, Chinese fishermen have been sailing around the South sea, so China has historically been both a naval and continental power.[9]

Gao Hong, an expert on Japan, said that the first island chain is a scheme by the US-Japan alliance to encircle and trap China. The first chain is to prevent China from accessing deep waters. Gao says this is a classic security consideration, which has given Japan some confidence. However, China has every right and reason to pass through the first chain, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which guarantees freedom of passage without harm. But the biggest threat to the PLA would be land-based missiles and increased aircraft carriers and naval fleets.[8]

According to a 2018 report to the US Congress:[10]

  • In 2013 September the PLA conducted a sea bomber training session, first launching a 6G bomber equipped with short-range anti-warship missiles across the Bashi channel on the first chain. That same year, the PLA Air Force began to switch to longer-range missiles, that is a 6K bomber equipped with long-range missiles.
  • Starting 2015, 6K bombers crossed the Bashi channel and Miyako strait of the first chain, reaching the western Pacific.
  • In 2016, the 6K bomber acquired defense capabilities from early warning aircraft systems (AWACS) and accompanying fighter jets.
  • Also in 2017 the PLA increased the number of 'circumnavigation missions' (i.e. circling above Taiwan).

The PLAAF bombers already have the capacity to lock in on Taiwan and break through the first chain to carry operations, threatening the security of US bases in Guam and US-friendly countries in the Pacific.[10]


The Cabinet of Japan passed a defense white paper emphasizing the 'threat of the Chinese navy'. In Japan's report on the frequent PLAN activities, there were many mentions of the first and second island chains. The movements of the PLAN are often linked to breaking through the island chains.[11]

In 2009 July, Hong Kong's Asia Weekly published an article saying that Japan pushed 500 km towards China by stationing troops on the island of Yonaguni. This was a move not only strengthening control over the Diaoyu Islands and improving first chain military containment of the mainland, but also preparing for preemptive strike in case of potential conflict with mainland China.[12]

Japan's strategic position in the first chain began with US-Japan joint efforts to counter Soviet expansion. The current PLAN strategy imitates the defensive thinking of the Soviet navy during the Cold war. During the cold war, the Soviet navy drew the Sea of Okhotsk red line to warn periphery countries not to enter. Likewise the PLAN strategy imitates these methods to control the South, East, Yellow seas, etc. in the areas associated with the first and second island chains. As a result, the PLA is using many of the Soviet-era Cold war equipment and weapons. Japan's self defense force mainly plays the role of protecting US military bases and preserving military strength in the face of China. As for Japan's Territorial Protection Self-Defense Forces, which mainly rely on islands in southern Japan adjacent to the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, Japan has strong military advantages in anti-submarine, air defense and sea mine technologies. Previous experience in competing with the Soviet Union has given Japan a clearer direction to cooperate with the US military in confronting the PLA's naval and air forces.[13]

Entities along the chainEdit

According to a former director of the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the most important entities on the chain are (in decreasing order of importance): Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. An extra fifth is added: India. Even though India is not part of the chain, it is part of the US–India Pacific strategy.[14]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Wiktionary: first island chain
  2. ^ "People's Liberation Navy - Offshore Defense".
  3. ^ “Asia's balance of power: China’s military rise: There are ways to reduce the threat to stability that an emerging superpower poses”, The Economist, dated 7 April 2012.
  4. ^ “China’s military rise: The dragon’s new teeth: A rare look inside the world’s biggest military expansion”, The Economist, dated 7 April 2012.
  5. ^ Duffy, Bernard K. (1997). Douglas MacArthur : warrior as wordsmith. Greenwood Press. pp. 178–179. ISBN 0313291489. OCLC 636642115.
  6. ^ Diplomat, Michael Mazza, The. "Why Taiwan Matters". The Diplomat. Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  7. ^ "Defend the First Island Chain". U.S. Naval Institute. 2014-04-01. Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  8. ^ a b c 新浪军事 (2016-12-29). "中国还需更多航母突破岛链 美竟有400个基地对华包围". Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  9. ^ "中國評論新聞:專家:日本擔憂中國突破第一島鏈". Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  10. ^ a b "Annual Report to Congress: Military and security developments involving the PRC 2018" (PDF). Office of Secretary of Defense. 16 May 2018.
  11. ^ 在日本著名雜誌《世界的艦船》中,每期都刊登經過日本海域到第二島鏈以外活動的中國船隻照片。在日本防務論壇的讀者留言中,大量日本讀者表達自己的不滿。一個叫「國政鳥瞰所」的博客上寫道:「不管怎麼看中國都是一個大陸國家,非要自己定義成海洋國家,這不是開玩笑吧。對於東亞局勢的緊迫,日本國家的行動緩慢,這真讓人感到煩躁不安。」
  12. ^ 文章摘要如下:日本防衛省表示,日本將向處於最西端的與那國島派駐一支陸軍部隊,以加強對被喻為日本西南邊防“重鎮”及其釣魚島等西南島嶼的保衛。這項派兵屯守計劃,作為“國家西南防禦部署的重要一環”,將被列入未來五年的“新防衛計劃大綱”。據日本軍方消息人士透露,首批派駐部隊隸屬於駐守在沖繩那霸的陸上自衛隊第一混合旅團,規模不是很大,官兵人數大概有50人左右。作為一支離島特殊連隊主要分為雷達偵察和音聲監聽兩個班,其主要職責是加強對尖閣諸島及其附近海域的監視與情報收集。而選擇駐軍與那國島,除了它與釣魚島近,只有約170公里外,還有島內具有跑道長2000米的機場,遇到“釣魚島有事”等緊急情況,可以迅速空運支持軍力和隨時起降被稱為“潛艇殺手”的新銳P3C反潛攻擊機。另外,與那國島正在擴建的港口將來也能停靠軍艦等,而鄰近的先島群島業已完成補給基地建設。因此,與那國島事實上將成為日本進一步控制釣魚島,應對西南島嶼有事的第一前哨陣地,也意味著日本在軍事戰略南移中,進一步強化從九州島島南線至琉球群島西南線的第一島鏈的駐軍布防。
  13. ^ "The Future of Sino-Japanese Competition at Sea". 2012-03-23. Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  14. ^ "「第一島鏈」防堵中國 美專家:日本戰略位居關鍵 - 國際 - 自由時報電子報". 自由電子報 (in Chinese). 2018-04-27. Retrieved 2019-06-10.