The U.S. military is increasingly confronted with how to present a credible defense against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Western Pacific. Geography almost invariably gives the PRC an upper hand in potential conflicts along its borders due to its “interior lines.” Enter “Archipelagic Defense.” The proposed solution is not new; the “island chains” have long been viewed as a means to contain Chinese expansion. However, this latest iteration of the strategy puts a premium on fortifying relevant islands with anti-ship missiles and air and missile defense systems.
The idea has an appealing logic: turn the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) equation back against China. By transforming islands into “porcupines,” DoD aims to develop layers of constraint against Chinese maritime growth. This strategy is both economical and resilient, at least in theory. Rather than matching China ship-for-ship and risk losing forces to the PRC’s A2/AD capabilities, archipelagic defense tries to put the United States and its allies on the right side of a cost imposition strategy. Pairing radars with shore-based, mobile anti-ship missiles could make a lethal but affordable combination. Moreover, there is no lack of islands in the western Pacific, so this offers the chance for “defense in depth.” The U.S. armed services have embraced the strategy with gusto. The Marines and Army, in particular, have been working on establishing their relevance in the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, with the collapse of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty system, many strategists are eager to turn the tables on China and give it an intermediate range ballistic missile problem that it must contend with in the region.
However, archipelagic defense is a bad idea for political, economic, environmental, and military reasons. First, policymakers face considerable political hurdles to implement this plan in practically all relevant locations in the western Pacific. Japan would seem to offer the most promising series of island locations for this strategy, but planners will have to reckon with the highly problematic history of U.S. presence in Okinawa. Reports suggest that relocating U.S. facilities to Okinawa will take an additional 12 years. A majority of Okinawan residents (72 percent) opposed the current plan. This example of tortured negotiation and local, grass-roots opposition stands as a glaring problem for archipelagic defense. Inevitably, residents in these island areas are also leery about becoming targets in a future war. Indeed, a detailed New York Times report in mid-Dec 2021 revealed the following: “if Beijing were ever to invade Taiwan, the anti-ship and antiaircraft systems could in theory be turned on Chinese military fleets. That could make the Japanese garrison a tempting target for China — and put Mr. Kinjo’s greenhouses in the line of fire. ‘I wonder if I can continue living here in safety,’ Mr. Kinjo, 66, said.”
Even in the U.S. territory of Guam, it is reported that “a growing number of Guam’s residents have been trying to pull away from ‘the status of being a military island.’” Further afield, the problems are even greater. For example, the Philippines’ constitution forbids permanent foreign bases; Indonesia also has a strong tradition of being a non-aligned state—a tradition most recently on display in Jakarta’s pointed critiques of the AUKUS deal. Archipelagic defense for Taiwan might actually prompt the war it is hoping to prevent, due to the volatile nature of the cross-Strait relationship. Moreover, any hint of actually deploying INF-range missiles has the potential to impact the region with political upheaval as somewhat similar policies did in Europe during the 1980s.
The United States could seek political support from locals by ensuring that they receive economic benefits. Yet this could prove to be a very pricey proposition. For example, the Okinawa base relocation will cost an estimated $8.5 billion without meaningful improvement in combat capability, and the cost estimates continue to increase. In Guam, the building of the “Aegis-ashore” system is said to be incomplete and will likely require the additional expenditure of tens of billions of dollars. But therein lies the dilemma: Aegis-ashore is not an offensive system or part of archipelagic defense, but once island bases are built, they must be defended. The reality is that archipelagic defense is a cost-imposing strategy for not only China, but also the Pentagon. Relatively poorer countries like the Philippines have already balked at paying for foundational archipelagic defense systems, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). At a minimum, building infrastructure in distant and remote locations, such as Palawan, would require airfields and a large road network. It is even more likely that these defense systems would also entail paying for living and maintenance facilities, air and missile defenses, as well as bunkers of various types. With Beijing digging in its backyard, and the United States doing the same in remote and often inhospitable locations, the economic numbers of this contest to support archipelagic defense as an affordable option, much less as “cost-imposition,” are not likely to add up given China’s proven engineering prowess.
At a time of global environmental crisis, it is also appropriate to consider the ecological consequences of archipelagic defense. The U.S. military does not have a strong record of responsible stewardship of the environment on its bases or in facilities abroad. There is no reason to believe that the delicate environment of island locations, such as Palau, will be adequately protected if new U.S. bases are being set up in multiple island locations throughout the western Pacific. Even in an instance where U.S. facilities are not at issue, local citizens on the tiny Japanese islet of Ishigaki are wary of the noise and pollution that will likely accompany an increased Japanese military presence as part of Tokyo’s implementation of archipelagic defense. Washington has rightly criticized Beijing’s poor environmental practices in the South China Sea, but extensive U.S. military deployments to the western Pacific have also had environmental consequences. Moreover, it would be valid to assert that states such as the Philippines should spend scarce resources on hardening against climate-change induced super typhoons, rather than preparing to fight against China.
Although archipelagic defense faces enormous political, economic, and environmental hurdles, it does not even succeed on its own terms as an effective military strategy. In trying to replicate China’s A2/AD strategy of deploying voluminous belts of missile fires and turning China’s tactics against itself, the strategy seems to misunderstand the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) basic enabling conditions. These include Beijing’s ample resources and its authoritarian political system that allows it to efficiently deploy resources with few constraints. Even so, geographical factors are most salient: China’s centrality means that systems based in or near China can target much of the region while the country has vast strategic depth in order to mask and hide military preparations and operations. The same cannot be said for the mostly tiny neighboring islands or islets, such as Ishigaki or Palau. Even larger islands like Okinawa or Palawan present easy targets in the age of precision strikes–now assisted by drone surveillance. Indeed, Chinese strategists are already actively discussing how to effectively strike U.S.-forward deployed forces. For example, one 2018 analysis projected that the Type 055 cruiser would enable the PLAN to “undertake large-scale attacks against Guam”. More recently, a Chinese military news broadcast from mid-November 2021 implies that Ishigaki and other Japanese islets near Taiwan are already targets for the PLA. Conceivably, archipelagic defense will prompt a more offensive-oriented Chinese strategy that prioritizes escalatory actions, such as a preemptive attack.
It is indeed far from clear that the United States will hold the upper hand in this spiraling arms race, but it is absolutely certain that threat inflation will continue to drive U.S. defense projections and related strategies, such as archipelagic defense. A better strategy based on realism and restraint would emphasize engagement, dialogue and confidence-building measures, but would simultaneously seek to develop more feasible defensive lines that encompass truly important strategic locations, such as the main islands of Japan and/or Hawaii. As one detailed, on-the-ground analysis from one of the key islands in question reported recently: “Washington seems keener on staring down China than listening to the Indigenous communities that would be caught in the crossfire.”
(Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ana S. Madrigal)