Could China defeat a “Great Wall in Reverse”? Suppose General David Berger, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, gets his way and transforms the corps into an island-hopping, missile-toting force able to transmute the first island chain into a “Great Wall in reverse”—a barricade against sea and air movement between the China seas and the Western Pacific. Chinese Communist Party magnates might be deterred for a time from misadventures in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, or East China Sea, but they would not meekly acquiesce in their imprisonment within coastal waters. After all, China must take to the high seas to make its “dream” of national rejuvenation come true. The leadership sees compelling economic, military, and diplomatic reasons to make China’s weight felt in world affairs.
All of these demand access to the high seas. All demand that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commanders devise some way to rupture the allied Great Wall.
What are Beijing’s options? Well, military overseers must first decide whether to undertake a broad or narrow offensive against the east wall. According to strategist Edward Luttwak, the choice between a broad or narrow offensive is the pivotal choice in theater strategy. In other words, PLA forces could act all along the first island chain more or less simultaneously in hopes of battering down what could be a thinly guarded perimeter. They could disperse forces in space while concentrating multiple offensives at the same time in hopes of scoring a breakthrough somewhere along the line. Coordination among these offensives would be at a premium to ensure they took place at once, preventing island defenders from shifting from side to side to reinforce one another at points of impact.
Or China’s commanders could leave token forces along the line to fix allied defenders in place, then, probably after feinting somewhere else along the island chain, mass combat power to launch a single massive blow at the wall. They could take advantage of what Carl von Clausewitz calls “cordon-warfare,” meaning trying to hold a distended line against a foe that enjoys the option of hurling most or all of its might against one sector of the line. Mathematicians describe a line as infinitely many points arranged in succession. That conveys the scope of the problem. It’s hard to be stronger than an antagonist at infinitely many points on the map. The attempt stretches and thins out the defense, potentially leaving it inferior to an antagonist at any one point.
That being the case, Clausewitz warns against trying to guard long perimeters. Commanders should keep the line as short as possible—although that’s not really an option along the first island chain. After all, the islands are where the islands are. If forced to mount such a defense, Clausewitz counsels defenders to make sure they can supply fire support all along the line. This constitutes the difference-maker for sentries patrolling the ramparts. For him fire support meant cannon artillery; today it means ordnance delivered from sea, air, and ground forces, chiefly by guided missiles and other precision armaments.
So the first and paramount decision before PLA commanders and their political masters is: broad or narrow?
Suppose the verdict is to launch a narrow-front offensive while holding elsewhere. The hammer could fall at a number of candidate sites. PLA commanders would need to decide whether to force the straits that allow egress into the Western Pacific, confining the effort to water, or to overrun an island or two overlooking one of the straits. In the ideal case they would opt to seize ground, assuming Beijing were confident in its as-yet-untried capability for amphibious warfare. That would let the PLA harness the logic of island-chain defense, emplacing its own missile-armed forces on the islands to help clear nearby waters and skies of defenders and threaten allied forces elsewhere along the island chain. It would break the chain at least temporarily.
But, as is commonly the case in martial affairs, the circumstances are far from ideal. Two favorite PLA Navy avenues into the Western Pacific are Miyako Strait, flanked by Okinawa to the north, and the Luzon Strait, flanked by Taiwan to the north and the Philippine island of Luzon to the south. It’s hard to envision PLA marines’ storming the beaches of Okinawa, an island that plays home to powerful U.S. and Japanese forces. Invading Okinawa has been tried before, at sanguinary cost to the invaders and defenders. It’s also hard to imagine their assaulting Luzon, an island of major dimensions that has witnessed its share of bitter insurgencies over the past century-plus. So Chinese commanders might satisfice by grabbing one island adjoining one of these waterways, or settle for some more distant position that still lies within missile reach of contested waters.
If PLA amphibian forces could punch through the island barrier, they could create what the English soldier B. H. Liddell Hart called an “expanding torrent” through an enemy defense-in-depth. In other words, the PLA would spill through a breach into the Western Pacific en masse. The danger of expanding-torrent operations for China would be that the allies might close the breach behind PLA sea and air forces—preventing them from returning home to refuel, resupply, and rearm. The prospect of seeing precious assets waste away could give China pause.
Or China could go big, trying to accomplish some of its cherished political aspirations that also carry immense military value. In particular, conquering Taiwan would solve a multitude of problems, including military problems. It would grant the PLA a position overshadowing the Luzon Strait, helping guarantee access to the Pacific for PLA Navy submarines and surface forces, and overshadowing the southern tip of the Ryukyu island chain to Taiwan’s north. Wresting the Senkaku Islands from Japan would be a distant next-best alternative for Beijing. Still, it would provide the PLA a foothold on the allied Great Wall, bestowing the military benefits of such a redoubt.
In any of these contingencies, on the other hand, the PLA would risk seeing soldiers stranded on Pacific isles should U.S. and allied forces reclaim command of the waters and skies along the first island chain. The specter of such a humiliating turn of events could deter Beijing from acting. It would call Xi Jinping’s leadership into question in the court of public opinion, a dangerous thing for any authoritarian ruler. And it would call into question the PLA’s image of competence, an image built up and carefully husbanded over the past quarter-century. Rank-and-file Chinese citizens might rally to the flag amid such a crisis; or they might turn against the Chinese Communist regime, potentially with fatal results for Xi & Co.
Attempting a breakout into the Western Pacific, then, promises China the greatest of rewards, but it could have mortal consequences should operations go badly. It’s up to allied militaries to design forces, tactics, and operations to ensure that PLA operations would go badly, and to convince Beijing they would. The allies can start by exercising foresight—and looking at the problem through Chinese eyes.
Therein lies wisdom.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone.