Belmont Club

Return To the First Island Chain

An aerial view shows a Taiwan Coast Guard vessel preparing for a search-and-rescue exercise off Taiping island, in the South China Sea , Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, as part of efforts to cement its claim to a key island in the strategically vital waterbody. Eight vessels and three aircraft took part in Tuesday's drill, which simulated a fire aboard a cargo ship that forced crew members to seek safety on Taiping in the Spratly island group. (AP Photo/Johnson Lai)

Donald Trump appears to have sent a message to Beijing: the First Island Chain will be held.  Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines will remain the Westernmost bulwark in the Pacific.  The Hill writes: “Donald Trump spoke on the phone with Taiwan President Tsai Ying-wen, a conversation that breaks decades of U.S. protocol and risks a clash with China. … The phone call will almost certainly infuriate Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province.”

The First Island Chain, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to a network of peninsulas and archipelagos which mirror the China coast, and whose possession blocks Beijing from direct access to the broad Pacific.  Japan considers denying the First Island chain to a foe as essential to her defense.  For many years the same string of islanders served as America’s strategic frontier in the West.

Recently China has been challenging the US by a series of encroachments.  Trump’s actions may signal that he will start to push back.

Readers may recall that the first foreign leader to meet with the president elect was Japanese PM Shinzo Abe.  Since then Trump’s policy appears to have taken on a definite shape. The Hill continues:

The call with Taiwan is just the latest Trump discussion with a foreign leader to make headlines.

Trump’s call this week with Pakistan’s leader also raised eyebrows after that country’s government released a readout that said the president-elect had discussed going to Pakistan — something President Obama did not do while in office.

And Trump made waves on Friday with a report that he had invited the controversial leader of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House. …

Foreign-policy experts say the call could alter U.S.-China relations, regardless of how it was arranged.

“I would guess that President-elect Trump does not really comprehend how sensitive Beijing is about this issue,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It’s not clear if Trump’s call was meant to signal a shift in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

But even if it is not, it could play into pre-existing concerns the Chinese have about the president-elect’s posture toward their country.

The NYT calls it a possible affront to Beijing. It would not be surprising if China is beginning to suspect that Trump may have identified America’s primary global rival as China. Russia would for the first time since 1945 be secondary.  America never wholly abandoned Taiwan.  One of the lesser known — because low key — installations on Taiwan was the installation of older Pave Paws Radar. But now things are out in the open.

It’s very, very valuable to Taiwan. Constructed on the top of a mountain in the country’s north, the Raytheon-built system cost approximately $1.4 billion. Purchasing the system from the United States stretches back to the Clinton administration, with lots of setbacks along the way. Taiwan was so freaked out last year when PAVE PAWS popped up on Apple Maps that it prevailed upon Apple to obscure the image of the system.

But with little international notice, Taiwan declared its PAVE PAWS operational last month. Air Force Lt. Wu Wan-chiao boasted that Taiwan would now have “more than six minutes’ warning in preparation for any surprise attacks.”

Chances are, it’s not just benefiting the Taiwanese. “I would expect the U.S. would have made a deal that the U.S. gets satellite surveillance from the Taiwan radar,” Allen Thomson, a former CIA weapons analyst, tells Danger Room. “Most of time it’s sitting there watching satellites, and that’s about it. The U.S. could certainly could use that information.”

The question must be what form will this rivalry — if rivalry be — take? Since we have returned in some degree to the Cold War, the obvious candidate mode is a kind of Cold War with China, with both cooperative and adversarial aspects.

The shocking thing about Trump is the speed with which he may be making these moves. The Left thinks they are the random actions of an idiot, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. However China is unlikely to assume that. They will assume it is guided to some degree by calculation and they would likely be right.

But Trump should sell such momentous shifts to the public: explain what it means, what risks it entails, why it is wise. There will be unavoidable costs. Trump’s apparent determination to hold the First Island chain suggest geopolitics will dominate human rights considerations, at least for now.  That may be a worthwhile tradeoff — or it may not — but for any policy to last it has to be supported by a significant majority of the voters.

The Democratic Party should stop underestimating Donald Trump.  The good news is that he moves at nongovernment speed.  The bad news is that, due to his outsider status, nobody knows exactly where he is going.  Maybe it’s time to find out.

Follow Wretchard on Twitter

Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas Ricks. History has been kind to the American generals of World War II – Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley – and less kind to the generals of the wars that followed – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq. In this book, we meet great leaders and suspect ones, generals who rose to the occasion and those who failed themselves and their soldiers. But in Ricks’s hands, this story resounds with larger meaning: about the transmission of values, about strategic thinking, and about the difference between an organization that learns and one that fails.

Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts. This book is the first one-volume biography to take advantage of the French publication of Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, allowing us to see him as he was: protean multitasker, decisive, and surprisingly willing to forgive his enemies and his errant wife, Josephine. Roberts also traveled to fifty-three of Napoleon’s sixty battle sites, discovered crucial new documents in archives, and even made the long trip by boat to St. Helena to produce a biography worthy of its subject.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard. The extraordinary account of James Garfield’s rise from poverty to the American presidency, and the dramatic history of his assassination and legacy.

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton. Every page shows how strange and marvelous the world really is. With compelling descriptions, hundreds of photographs, charts, and maps for every region of the world. Tagged as addictive by readers.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
Tip Jar or Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the Belmont Club