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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012

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Shifting fronts?: An elderly Taiwanese fishmonger sells freshly caught produce Dec. 5 at a harbor local fishermen share with the Suao naval base in northeastern Taiwan. AP

Are Senkaku islets first line of defense against rising China?


SUAO, Taiwan — Perched on a narrow promontory off Taiwan's heavily industrialized northeastern coast, the Suao naval base is only 220 km from a rocky group of islets at the center of a heated territorial dispute between Japan and China.

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A pair of trawlers return to the harbor the same day. AP

Along with Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands — called Diaoyu in China — form part of what military strategists call the "first island chain." The string of islets and atolls in the East China Sea that run along China's eastern periphery, the beginning of an arc that more broadly extends from South Korea to the southern Philippines and takes in a number of other disputed territories — notably the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

While most explanations for the territorial rows focus on nationalistic pride and access to rich fishing grounds or potentially large reserves of oil and gas, the Senkaku island chain once figured prominently in strategic calculations — and some say still has strategic relevance today.

Military interest in the chain dates from at least the 1920s, when American planners concluded the islands could play a key role in helping the U.S. defend against Japan's rising militarism. After the communist victory in China's civil war in 1949, Washington came to regard the chain as an important vehicle for containing China's military expansion, with special emphasis on Taiwan's role.

U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur called Taiwan "an unsinkable aircraft carrier," whose position, some 160 km off China, gave it the ability to project power all along China's eastern coast.

MacArthur's doctrine helped focus Beijing's attention on the Senkaku chain's strategic value. Adm. Liu Huaqing, head of the Chinese navy from 1982 to 1986, saw control of the waters within its boundaries as the first step in a three-stage strategy to transform the forces under his command into a formidable platform for projecting China's power.

The next stage, he wrote, involved controlling a second island chain linking the Ogasawara Islands — under the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's jurisdiction some 1,000 km away in the Pacific — with Guam and Indonesia, while the third stage focused on ending U.S. dominance throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans, largely by deploying aircraft carriers in the region.

Contemporary analysts are divided on whether the islets have lost their strategic relevance, notwithstanding the rapid expansion of the Chinese navy.

Skeptics say China's acquisition of advanced, longer-range missiles means it can defend itself from its own shores, though the Senkaku chain still creates vulnerable chokepoints for its vessels heading to sea.

"In my view, technology is diminishing the relevance of geographic strategy," said Mark Stokes, an ex-U.S. military attache in Beijing. "For example, the ability to strike moving targets at sea from southeast China at extended ranges reduces the need for cruise missile platforms closer to sea lines."

This view was echoed by Ni Lexiong, a military affairs expert at Shanghai University of Law and Political Science. "In the era of the fast development of military technology such as missiles, airstrikes and nuclear weapons, the military role of the 'first island chain' is getting less important," Ni said. "For instance, if China acquires advanced military technology, it will be useless for the U.S. . . . to make military deployment along the first island chain because it's easy to get attacked."

Countering Stokes and Ni are the geographic-centric arguments of chain advocates such as geopolitical analyst and author Robert Kaplan, author of the book "The Revenge of Geography," and East Asia military specialist Dan Blumenthal of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, who believes the Senkakus are important in safeguarding U.S. strategic assets all the way to the sprawling U.S. military facility on Guam.

"The chain matters," Blumenthal wrote in an email, stressing it could enable the U.S. to thwart ocean-bound Chinese subs at the chokepoints. "It is very hard to defend the Pacific if you lose the ability to slam the gate shut."

Washington's official view appears to be to ignore the Senkaku Islands, lest an increasingly powerful China reacts aggressively. The Obama administration believes it makes far better sense to approach Beijing not so much as a rival, but as a potential partner for dealing with a welter of crucial issues — nuclear proliferation, for example, as well as climate change and global economic security.

"We are in the same boat, and we will either row in the same direction or we will, unfortunately, cause turmoil and whirlpools that will impact not just our two countries, but many people far beyond either of our borders," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared in a 2011 speech dedicated to bilateral relations with China.

Since then, the regional geopolitical climate has grown far more tense, fed by a series of confrontations between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkakus and escalating friction between China and a number of Southeast Asian countries over its expanding territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Under its "Pacific Pivot" policy, Washington has expanded military exercises in the region and placed important military resources in strategic Asian locations, but it has made no mention at all of the chain and avoided taking sides in the various territorial disputes in the area.

Treating the Senkaku chain as a relic seems a dubious proposition in Suao, which looks out onto a broad expanse of open water that Chinese naval vessels often cross en route to the Pacific. On a recent morning, three Taiwanese corvettes lolled placidly just west of a breakwater.

But the U.S. ended its direct military relationship with Taiwan in the runup to transferring its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, effectively removing Taiwan's status as the first island chain, and few analysts expect the island will be reintegrated anytime soon.

"I think we have come to a point where maintaining cordial ties with China trumps lesser concerns for many in official Washington," said James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. "No U.S. government agency sees a pressing stake in Taiwan anymore."

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