Last May, Secretary of Defense James Mattis retitled U.S. Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command. While the area of responsibility for the largest of the six geographical U.S. combatant commands remains unchanged, the decision is a nod in “recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific oceans.” The name change is noteworthy in today’s geostrategic environment. With its first overseas base in Africa, Chinese naval vessels transiting the Indian Ocean routinely, and a budding list of maritime infrastructure projects, China’s interests are no longer bounded by the Pacific; they now span the Indian Ocean too.
China has redefined the regional security environment and shifted it toward the Indian Ocean basin. As a result, the security concept of three Pacific “island chains” should grow to include the Indian Ocean as well. The island chain is a geographical security concept used to illustrate a defensive or offensive perimeter by linking islands and other larger land masses together. Since American military planners in the 1940s identified the initial chain as a means to secure the Soviet Union’s and People’s Republic of China’s maritime approaches, the number of chains has grown to three. John Foster Dulles is attributed with designating the islands stretching from the Kurils, the Japanese home islands, and the Ryukyus to Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia as the “first island chain” in the 1950s. The second chain stretches from Japan through the Marianas and Micronesia, and the third is centered on Hawaii. But the chains are not officially demarcated, and there is debate regarding their boundaries. As Andrew Erickson and Joel Wuthnow assessed in 2016, China has nuanced and sometimes divergent perceptions of the geopolitical significance or delineation of the three island chains.
The addition of a fourth and fifth chain in the Indian Ocean would better describe emerging Chinese maritime strategy. Chinese naval planners hope to deny adversaries the ability to operate within the first island chain during a conflict, contest control of the second island chain, and operate as a blue water navy within the third island chain. A new fourth island chain through the middle of the Indian Ocean would reflect China’s ability to challenge its geostrategic neighbor India with dual-use facilities in Gwadar, Pakistan, and Hambantota, Sri Lanka. A fifth island Chain, originating from China’s base at Doraleh, Djibouti, would reflect Beijing’s ability to pursue its developing commitments afar, such as harnessing economic resources, conducting anti-piracy operations, and protecting Chinese living abroad.
Chinese Advances into the Indian Ocean
In 2017, China made two major moves in the Indian Ocean basin: it set up its first overseas military base in Doraleh and, through economic maneuvering, extracted a 99-year concession from the Sri Lankan government for Hambantota port. Some analysts contend that a second overseas military base in Gwadar is a not-too-distant reality. Oftentimes referred to as a “string of pearls,” these isolated pockets of Chinese power projection are analogous to islands. But what is particularly interesting is that these “islands” almost directly parallel U.S. military presence in the Indian Ocean. The British territory of Diego Garcia, which holds a strategic American base, is at a distance to the south but, at 72°E, is longitudinally sandwiched between Gwadar at 62°E and Hambantota at 81°E. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army base in Doraleh is just a few miles west of the United States’ Camp Lemonnier.
The amount of Chinese military and economic activity around these locations has been significant. Yun Sun from the Stimson Center points out that in a 10-year period, beginning in 2008 when China began anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, “China has dispatched 30 naval-escort taskforces to the region, at a steady rate of three a year.” On the African continent, China has promised over $100 million in military aid to the African Union, a new pledge of over $60 billion in financial support, and registered an 8,000-strong peacekeeping force with the United Nations. Following the rationale for renaming Indo-Pacific Command and acknowledging Chinese activity unfolding in and around the Indian Ocean basin, China watchers and security practitioners should consider upping the number of chains to include two more in the Indian Ocean.
The Prospective Fourth and Fifth Island Chains
Prospective fourth and fifth island chains in the Indian Ocean could be delineated in a multitude of ways, and the following methods are only illustrative, based on their alignment with existing U.S. military bases and Chinese interests. The fourth island chain commences in Gwadar, hugs the western coasts of India and Sri Lanka, and then passes southward from Hambantota, through the Indian Ocean, and passing the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia. The fourth chain signifies the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s ability to not only challenge the American security interests at Diego Garcia, but also China’s strategic competitor—India.
Jutting out from the Gulf of Tadjoura in Djibouti, the fifth island chain passes through the Gulf of Aden, proceeds east as it outlines the Horn of Africa, and then south along the east coast of Africa. This reflects the importance of China’s developing commitments and influence in Africa and the western Indian Ocean, signified by its base at Doraleh.
Detractors could argue that chain inflation is unnecessary. But this proposal could instigate fresh thinking given a changing geostrategic status quo. In the context of “great power competition,” it is an opportune time for just such a debate. As Yun augurs, “now that China has gathered the experience, learned the requisite lessons and gained enough know-how, sources inside Beijing say it is only a matter of time before more overseas bases are built.” Just as security practitioners retitled Indo-Pacific Command to reflect new geostrategic realities, so too should island chain advocates holding onto outdated, twentieth century models.