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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

How China Would Wage War Against the ‘Great Wall In Reverse’

China Aircraft Carrier
A Chinese Aircraft Carrier on the high-seas. Image Credit: Chinese Internet.

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.

Written By

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.”

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Commentar

    April 17, 2022 at 7:50 pm

    The ‘reverse great wall’ is already in existence.The USS Connecticut was prowling in waters between Hainan and hk off the coast when it hit an ‘unknown’ object. Photos later revealed it had surfaced south-east of Hainan after collision.

    In a few years’ time the reverse wall will truly become a wall of foreboding and disaster when TEL mounted hypersonic projectiles appear just behind it or on its parapets.

    In 1940, the great Pacific fleet moved to Hawaii and it led to a string of events that culminated in ‘day of infamy.’

    In 2025, day of infamy could prove to be kindergarten stuff if reverse great wall goes into action.Recall ‘Joint Vision 2020’ formulated in may 2000 that insisted on full spectrum dominance and crushing loss on adversaries.

  2. The Drill SGT

    April 18, 2022 at 12:13 pm

    I think the article ignores the geography while trying to focus on the geography.

    Why would the CCP want to break out into the Pacific?

    1. to make it easier to be attacked?
    2. to threaten California with shell/missile fires?
    3. to convoy container ships to Long Beach?
    4. To knock one of the Allies out of the war? Japan? Taiwan? Philippines?

    Do any of those make sense? Perhaps #4

    The barrier area the seems to me to be critical is the Maylay straits. The choke point for the oil and minerals that China industries need.

  3. Thomas Chappell

    April 18, 2022 at 1:06 pm

    What in God’s name are you talking about? In your scenario are we denying China access to the high seas to start with? Has a war somehow otherwise started? Or do you think China is going to launch a multi pronged Pearl Habor type sneak attack? Or are we just getting everyone psyched up for the US to start to start a war of choice against China?

  4. CK

    April 18, 2022 at 2:04 pm

    I think the focus will always be on Taiwan first and foremost. But having seen what is happening in Ukraine, China might be having some second thoughts and a sobering assessment of what is possible and what is not, at least now or in the next 5-10 years.

    • Matt Musson

      May 6, 2022 at 11:52 am

      Meanwhile, the USAF just released a video of their new anti-ship missile QuickSink. It is designed to Quickly Sink Chinese ships invading Taiwan from a standoff position.

      The Chinese have only a handful of LST type ships. Sink those and the invasion is dead.

      Meanwhile, have 3 destroyers standing by the Singapore straits interdicting oil tankers going to China. Within 3 months the vehicles stop. 6 months the lights go out. 12 months you have 100 million Chinese dead from starvation.

  5. mrmusterstone

    April 18, 2022 at 2:13 pm

    May I ask some questions?

    What does the US want? To keep the seas open to commerce and to keep any other country from making serious impingements on said.

    China wants to be a hegemon of some gravitas in the Western Pacific with wider ambitions.

    Each has a navy, both abuilding. The US can meet its goals just by doing what it has been doing. More, the US has a self sustaining consumer oriented economy invulnerable to blockade.

    No so China and therein lies the larva in the rice bowl. China is mercantilist and as all such must import large quantities of raw materials (particularly oil), including food and must in turn export finished products. If this economic merry-go-round is strategically disrupted the Chinese, just as the Japanese before them, can calculate just how many weeks it will take for economic collapse.

    How does a navy have the ‘reach’ to accomplish decisives? Logistics; exactly, at-sea replenishment. What are the capabilities of the PLA navy in this area? Would I be far wrong to say poor to none?

    Both sides want to “best” their position; one holding, one up coming. Lets say that the PLAN has adequate logistics then a question is begged; what Decisive Strategic objective can a PLAN force accomplish such that the US will surrender the open sea to China?

    Unless instructed differently, I say None!

    Talk of Chinese seizing islands to allow naval egress to accomplish nothing of strategic value begs a second question. Would such motivate Japan to go nuclear, with South Korea, by hook or by crook following on? Taking even the slightest chance on this is not a “best” move the CCP.

    The marines? I never saw them as a wall but as a force to attrite enemies moving past. And I have to say it looks a lot like a suicide mission.

    Look, after WWI the League of Nations could very well have worked and it would have been rational for everyone to accept it except that Germany, the USSR, Italy, etc, felt “left out” and didn’t want to play by the rules of others, sooooo… *

    China (shrugs)!

    *Tooz, Deluge.

  6. LWC

    April 18, 2022 at 3:09 pm

    We could rationalize all we want, but actors, especially authoritarians, leading up to a war are only “rational” in their own minds. Instead, we need to identify Chi-coms’ immediate priorities: (1) taking Taiwan and thereby remove the Republic of China that poses an existential threat to the communist rule, and (2) dominating the resource rich South China Sea. Hence, any attempt to break the so called “wall” or confinement is not an end for chi-coms, but the means to ensure and secure the achievement of the above two priorities.

  7. Thomas Chappell

    April 18, 2022 at 3:15 pm

    I agree with prior comment. If the Russian invasion of Ukraine is considered an old fashioned land grab – which I do not think it is purely – and has no place in the 21st century, then isn’t a blockade the naval equivalent. And if China is truly threatened why would they not escalate to nukes? We would do so and nearly did in 1962.

    I restate my point that the article has no indication of why China is attacking our outposts on their doorstep. Please, James Holmes, tell us what started it before we start thinking about how to kill each other.

    Maybe we can stop it by being rational and considering each others’ position.

  8. SamB

    April 18, 2022 at 4:26 pm

    The DrillSGT makes an excellent observation about China’s motivation to expand into the Pacific…mainly that its just not there…at present.
    For me…its even puzzling why China is making so much noise over control of Taiwan…which doesnt really seem to be in China’s strategic interests anyway.
    The real issue for China is secure supplies of Oil AND a steady market for its exports…if China loses either one…..China is doomed.
    Peter Zeihan writes a lot about this situation…I think his observations are a little too focused on Geography alone…but overall he makes some very valid points.
    If the USA does indeed choke off the Oil Supply….we very well could experience another Pearl Harbor….and the recent destruction of that Moskva Destroyer by Ukraine’s guided missiles is a wake-up call, especially since China has already demonstrated its Hypersonic Capabilities.

  9. FRAZIER STALL

    April 18, 2022 at 6:24 pm

    Hmm, Mr Holmes, russian forces have begun the widely expected donbass offensive, on monday according to ‘zelensky.’

    Donbass is relatively open country with numerous pockets of militia fighters, how would USMC fare in such an environment. Would they be studying or observing how donbass fighting is unfolding in a scenario that’s ideal for ground attack drones and aircraft to operate.

    Would USMC prefer beaches and sea ports and islands and leave donbass-type places to Army rangers and Abrams.

  10. Jacksonian Libertarian

    April 21, 2022 at 3:04 pm

    Compared to General David Berger, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, the rest of the US High Command are Politized Peacetime Hacks unworthy of commanding American Troops.

    Lines in military terms are where forces are within mutual supporting range of each other. Anti-ship missiles have ranges of thousands of miles, which makes the China Sea and all the way to Guam, a death zone for Chinese ships (aka the line). Taiwan alone has 1,200+ anti-ship missiles, and we know it only took 2 missiles to sink the Missile Cruiser Moskva (13,500 tons), fragile troop transports, and supply ships wouldn’t fare as well.

    How is the Chinese navy going to break through the Line when they’re being sunk by the dozens from land-launched, air-launched, ship-launched, and submarine-launched anti-ship missiles, and the line that isn’t really a line?

    An allied strategic blockade of China would end 98% of China’s foreign trade, and 40% of China’s GDP, and it would be permanent. China doesn’t make anything that can’t be made with less risk somewhere else. The world market share China now enjoys with their slave labor. Would be snatched up in heartbeat by capitalist profiteers. In a massive competitive scrum with governments using subsidies of every kind, to grab as much market share for their countries as possible.

  11. StandAndFightSir

    May 1, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    Apparently not a single commenter is aware of China’s security deal with the Solomons. A CCP base will be built there. Australia’s election is certainly bing affected by their foolish treatment of Sogavare.

    When I was in the Corps we were still an amphibious force under the Navy. After forced into being an appendage of Big Army to fight their land wars in remote Anbar and Helmand, apparently th’genrals don’t want to give up all the new toys they received.

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