First island chain

The first island chain perimeter (marked in red).

The first island chain refers to the first chain of major archipelagos out from the East Asian continental mainland coast. It is principally composed of the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan (Formosa), the northern Philippines, and Borneo, hence extending all the way from the Kamchatka Peninsula in the northeast to the Malay Peninsula in the southwest. 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 in US foreign policy.[3]

Much of the first island chain is roughly situated in waters claimed by the People's Republic of China.[4] These include the South China Sea, within the Nine-Dash Line, as well as the East China Sea west of the Okinawa Trough.

Strategic value

United States

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 west 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]

In 2014 April, the United States Naval Institute (USNI) assessed that the first island chain is the most effective point to counter any Chinese invasion.[7] The US could not only cut off the People's Liberation Army Navy from entering the western Pacific, but also predict where they may move before trying to break through in the first place. The US and first chain countries are able to coordinate because of the US military's freedom of navigation in the first chain block.[8] In June 2019, USNI called for a blockade of the first island chain if armed conflict broke out between China and the United States.[7]

Andrew Krepinevich argued that an "archipelagic defense" of the countries that make up the first island chain would make up a big part of the implementation of the national defense strategy of 2018.[9]

A 2019 report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments "proposes a U.S. military strategy of Maritime Pressure and a supporting joint operational concept, “Inside-Out” Defense, to stabilize the military balance in the Western Pacific and deny China the prospect of a successful fait accompli." The first island chain plays a central role in the report.[10]

In 2020, the United States Marine Corps started shifting its tactics in conjunction with the United States Navy to be deployed along or near the first island chain.[11] In 2021, the United States Marine Corps announced a goal of three additional Pacific-based regiments.[12]


In the first island chain, Taiwan is considered of critical strategic importance.[13] It is located at the midpoint of the first chain and occupies a strategic position.[13]

Chinese mainland

According to a 2018 United States Department of Defense report to Congress, the People's Liberation Army's Anti Access/Area Denial military capabilities aimed at the first island chain are its most robust.[14] The report also stated that the People's Liberation Army Navy's ability to perform missions beyond the first island chain is "modest but growing as it gains experience operating in distant waters and acquires larger and more advanced platforms."[14]


Around 2009 Japanese military strategist Toshi Yoshihara and Naval War College professor James R. Holmes suggested the American military could exploit the geography of the first island chain to counter the PRC naval build-up.[11] The Cabinet of Japan has also passed defense white papers emphasizing the threat posed by the People's Liberation Army Navy in the first island chain.[15][16][17][18]

In the later years of the 2010s, Japan started deploying military assets to Yonaguni and its other islands to counter China's presence along that area of the first island chain.[19][20]

Japan's strategic position in the first island chain began with US-Japan joint efforts to counter Soviet expansion. The Japan Self-Defense Forces currently plays the role of protecting US military bases and preserving military strength in East Asia. 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 military advantages in anti-submarine, air defense and sea mine technologies.[21]

See also


  1. ^ "Wiktionary: first island chain". Archived from the original on 2012-04-12. Retrieved 2012-04-10.
  2. ^ "People's Liberation Navy - Offshore Defense". Archived from the original on 2012-04-15.
  3. ^ Vorndick, Wilson (October 22, 2018). "CHINA'S REACH HAS GROWN; SO SHOULD THE ISLAND CHAINS". ASIA MARITIME TRANSPARENCY INITIATIVE. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Archived from the original on 17 November 2020. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  4. ^ Holmes, James R.; Yoshihara, Toshi (2012-09-10). Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The Turn to Mahan. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-98176-1. OCLC 811506562.
  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. Archived from the original on 2019-06-24. Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  7. ^ a b "Blockade the First Island Chain". Proceedings. United States Naval Institute. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  8. ^ "Defend the First Island Chain". U.S. Naval Institute. 2014-04-01. Archived from the original on 2019-05-22. Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  9. ^ KREPINEVICH, ANDREW (February 21, 2018). "How To Implement The National Defense Strategy In Pacific". Breaking Defense. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  10. ^ "Tightening the Chain: Implementing a Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific". CSBA. Retrieved 2021-02-09.
  11. ^ a b "Special Report: U.S. rearms to nullify China's missile supremacy". Reuters. May 6, 2020. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  12. ^ South, Todd (2021-02-05). "Marine Corps looks at building 3 new Pacific regiments to counter China". Marine Corps Times. Retrieved 2021-02-09.
  13. ^ a b Easton, Ian (2019). The Chinese invasion threat: Taiwan's defense and American strategy in Asia. ISBN 978-1-78869-176-5. OCLC 1102635997.
  14. ^ a b "Annual Report to Congress: Military and security developments involving the PRC 2018" (PDF). Office of Secretary of Defense. 16 May 2018. Archived (PDF) from the original on 6 December 2018. Retrieved 10 June 2019.
  15. ^ Gady, Franz-Stefan (August 2, 2016). "Japan's Defense White Paper Highlights Growing Threat From China". The Diplomat. Archived from the original on 14 February 2021. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  16. ^ "Japan and Vietnam ink first maritime patrol ship deal as South China Sea row heats up". Japan Times. August 11, 2020. Archived from the original on 14 February 2021. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  17. ^ "2020 DEFENSE OF JAPAN" (PDF). Ministry of Defense Publications. Japanese Ministry of Defense. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  18. ^ "From India to Bhutan to South China Sea, Beijing unilaterally attempting to change status quo: Japan". World is One News. July 14, 2020. Archived from the original on 18 November 2020. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  19. ^ "Japan builds an island 'wall' to counter China's intensifying military, territorial incursions". Washington Post. August 21, 2019. Archived from the original on 12 November 2020. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  20. ^ "Taiwan to benefit from Japan's move to boost island defense capabilities". Taiwan News. March 18, 2019. Archived from the original on 13 November 2020. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  21. ^ "The Future of Sino-Japanese Competition at Sea". 2012-03-23. Retrieved 2019-06-10.


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