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“first island chain”


(click to enlarge)

During the Cold War, the United States sought to contain China by forming a “first island chain” from Japan reaching all the way down to the Philippines. (Refer to the map on the left.) Circled are various straits China has successfully navigated through to date. After reading this China Daily report, I was curious where those mentioned straits are located. With Russia, China probably feels more emboldened to crossed those parts of the chain.

We are accustomed to hearing joint navy exercises between the U.S. and Japan in the region on a regular basis. However, in recent years, China and Russia are conducting exercises of their own. Given Obama’s Asia Pivot, where the U.S. officially divert more naval power to the region, China sees urgency in beefing up her presence too.

Whether we like the situation or not, an arms race in Asia is under way.

Some might wonder how China and Russia are able to navigate through the Tsugaru Strait without infringing on Japan’s territorial integrity. According to Wikipedia:

Japan’s territorial waters extend to three nautical miles (5.6 km) into the strait instead of the usual twelve, reportedly to allow nuclear-armed United States Navy warships and submarines to transit the strait without violating Japan’s prohibition against nuclear weapons in its territory.

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  1. August 2nd, 2013 at 00:56 | #1

    I just read this article in Yale Journal which is quite revealing? Troubling? http://yalejournal.org/2013/06/12/who-authorized-preparations-for-war-with-china/

    I used to be of the opinion that researching and sharing of factual information would promote understanding, thereby avoiding unnecessary conflicts. I have become more pessimistic. It’s increasingly evident to me that those committed to provoking conflicts are not misguided by a lack of understanding, but an insane ambition to “rule the world”, like some Batman villains. I hope I’m wrong.

  2. August 5th, 2013 at 03:59 | #2

    This post – as well as articles such as this make it seem as if a decision to extend territories out to 12 nautical miles would have closed access of ships across the first chain. That doesn’t seem to be the case when I took a casual look at the map.

    From the Japan Time Post, which the wikipedia article quoted as the original reference for the quoted assertion in the post, the language is more nuanced:

    If the boundaries had been set at 12 nautical miles, there would have been no areas of open sea in some sections, forcing the vessels to cross Japanese waters and thus infringe on Japan’s three nonnuclear principles of not possessing, producing or allowing nuclear weapons on its territory, they said.

    For this case, for Chinese ships returning from drills with Russian ships, the key is probably the Tsushima and Korea straits. If Chinese ships could not pass there, it would have been forced to take the southern route, with the Japanese main islands on its starboard instead of port on the way back.

    As for the China daily quote of a general that the Japanese islands have been cut into fragments … I don’t know. The route shows both the strength and weakness of China, I think.

    It’s definitely an important step to be able to support Chinese ships so they can pass through Japanese straits. It shows growing capabilities. But in times of war / conflict, the legal technicalities (let’s just call it that for now) exploited here means nothing. Chinese ships would have to face U.S. / Japanese naval and air force at these straits, making these unpassable – at least in the early stages of the conflict. Until the U.S. / Japanese forces have been neutralized, the fact remains that the first island chain remains a formidable barrier to Chinese forces…

  3. Charles Liu
    August 5th, 2013 at 09:53 | #3

    Guo Du, China has always been near the top of America’s list of enemies. Remember Rumsfeld’s single theater readiness? That spear was pointed at China, until 9/11 happened. Obama’s Pacific pivot is about the same, a reflection of America’s need to manufacture enemy, and China is a very convenient target.

    As to Allen’s observation of UNCLOS, EEZ is quite different, and open seas has little transit restriction, only management of economic exploitation – in peace time:


  4. August 5th, 2013 at 10:13 | #4

    @Charles Liu

    I wasn’t talking about EEZ. EEZ can extend out up to 200 nautical miles from a nation’s coastline. Territorial seas can extend up to 12 nautical miles. I was talking about the 12.

    If get into whether EEZ, it’s important to note that EEZ does not equate to territorical waters. In the South China Sea spat where the U.S. military continues to monitor China’s Hainan coast and facilities in close proximities, there has been a debate on whether U.S. can do so. The issue there is whether China as ad minsitrator of the EEZ has power to govern research activities, including military ones. It is the Chinese position that it does…

    I haven’t researched into all facets of this, but from a top view, China should note the more China requests for EEZ in the China Seas, it may have to give up (respect) Japanese and others’ in the Pacific…

    Either that or China would have to advance a claim over South China seas beyond the framework of EEZ… It may say it has sovereignty over rocks that it deems to be islands … and claim the 12 nautical mile as territorial seas. If the makeof of the South China Seas become so checked by this 12 nautical mile claims, it may have to assert a new legal claim for claiming the “orphaned” seas in the area – as areas of security interests… Anyways, without looking into this in more detail, I can’t say more…

  5. Black Pheonix
    August 5th, 2013 at 11:38 | #5


    Actually, the issue is whether “signal monitoring” is considered military activities in EEZ.

    UNCLOS (and other international maritime laws) clearly say that administrators of EEZ has the right to refuse military activities by other nations.

    However, US’s position (unequally applied) is that gathering signals passively while in China’s EEZ is not “military activity”, but merely “right of transit”.

    *Note, US does not allow other nations to gather signals passively within its EEZ.

    US has even gone to the extreme of enforcing its “right of transit” in China’s EEZ, by sending military fighter “escorts” for its spy planes. (You can see the strange logic in that).

    Although, I note that China is beginning to “pay back” some of that in kind.


  6. August 5th, 2013 at 12:13 | #6

    @Black Pheonix

    OK – so you think the case is closed under EEZ when I am not so sure (see, e.g., http://www.usnwc.edu/Research—Gaming/China-Maritime-Studies-Institute/Publications/documents/China-Maritime-Study-7_Military-Activities-in-the-.pdf).

    In any case, my point still stands, whatever position China takes, the more it gains in the South China Seas, the more it may have to give up in the East China Seas and Western Pacific, where the U.S. and Japan controls lots of islands…

    And of course, should the day come when China has the capabilities to survey all of the Japanese coast, should it do so in close proximity? That day may come sooner rather than later … judging by this post. So should China give up its legal right to do so vis-a-vis its position in the South China Seas …?


  7. Black Pheonix
    August 5th, 2013 at 13:09 | #7


    I agree with your point, regardless how we each word the issue.

    I think China is responding proportionally in flexing its naval powers recently, particularly in sailing closer and closer into Japanese and US EEZ.

    Afterall, US has been doing that for decades in Chinese EEZ.

    *On that note, time for China to build its Echelon/PRISM/etc. and point those antennas at Japan and US, and then just relay it all to Julian Assange.


  8. August 10th, 2013 at 23:15 | #8

    The Japanese are also very paranoid about Chinese ships passing near their islands. Their military will tail the Chinese ships all the way with spy planes and take pictures to be released to the japanese press so that their media can kick a hissy fit even though the Chinese ship are sailing on international waters

  9. Charles Liu
    August 12th, 2013 at 09:26 | #9

    Let’s not forget US spy planes flying out of Okinawa weekly (sometimes daily) up and down China’s cost line.

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