- - Saturday, March 20, 2021

Most islands are viewed through a geopolitical lens as mere extensions of richer populated governing landmasses. As the Biden administration crafts its foreign policy, several island contests embody the growing political, diplomatic and trade stresses of the current global security landscape.

Guam is a U.S. territory in Micronesia, 6,000 miles west of California, populated by 170,000 American citizens and service members. Adm. Phil Davidson, head of the Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that Guam is a key strategic facility for responding to regional conflict. It possesses a deep-water naval port and Andersen Air Force Base services heavy strategic bombers. It is therefore a prime target of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which released a propaganda video depicting their air force bombers attacking the base.

Beijing’s anti-access area denial strategy in the event of conflict includes preventing U.S. forces from approaching the Western Pacific’s “second island chain” from Japan south to Indonesia, including Guam. Adm. Davidson requested $27 billion through 2026 for new weapons and investments to strengthen Guam’s defense posture, provide stronger air defense against Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles, and enhance command and control capabilities to prevail within the future Pacific security environment.

In January, Beijing’s National People’s Congress passed a law transforming its coast guard into a military-like organization under centralized CCP command. This challenges Tokyo’s efforts to assert sovereignty over its uninhabited Senkaku Islands, the end of an archipelago extending 630 miles southwest of Japan. Purchased in 2012, the islands are also claimed by China and Taiwan, who treasure the surrounding area rich in oil, natural gas and fisheries.

Chinese coast guard vessels repeatedly enter Japanese territorial waters around the islands. They maintain a sufficiently confrontational yet non-kinetic approach, to avoid triggering a military response. Beijing is on course to develop sufficiently powerful naval and air forces by 2027 to counter the Japanese coast guard. That could embolden it to conduct stealth amphibious operations, occupy the islands and defy Tokyo to oust Chinese military forces.



Presidents Obama and Trump both declared the islands fall under the U.S.-Japan security alliance, a position reaffirmed by President Biden prior to the meeting between top administration officials and their Chinese counterparts in Alaska last week. Whether any U.S. administration is truly willing to risk war with China to defend uninhabited Japanese islands is uncertain.

South of Senkaku, Taiwan remains under constant threat by China of forceful unification, proclaimed again by CCP General-Secretary Xi Jinping in January 2019. Taipei must defend its territory and 23 million citizens against a massively expanding Chinese military stationed 100 miles away. It must also protect Quemoy and Matsu, tiny Taiwanese islands eight miles from China’s coast.

U.S.-China tensions reached near-crisis dimensions over these islands during the 1950s Cold War. One projected scenario envisions Chinese raids on the islands. Taiwan, locked into single-minded defensive posture to deter a Chinese invasion, would find the raids nearly impossible to thwart or reverse. The odds of a U.S. or allied military response to Chinese raids of Taiwan’s islands approach zero.

At the other end of Eurasia, renewed Turkish claims over Greek sovereign territory brought the NATO allies to predicament again. In 1996, their navies were hours away from full-on war over uninhabited Aegean islets long recognized as Greek and briefly occupied by Turkish forces until the Clinton administration brokered a deconfliction agreement.

Today, Ankara disputes Greece’s continental shelf and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around a small archipelago of Greek islands one mile from the Turkish Mediterranean coast, near valuable natural gas reserves atop vital shipping lanes through Egypt’s Suez Canal chokepoint, near Russia’s air and naval bases in Syria, and the Chinese-built shipping terminal in Haifa, Israel. Ankara seeks to subsume the Kastellorizo island cluster under broad Turkish continental shelf and EEZ claims unrecognized by any country except Libya. A military standoff the second half of 2020 that included French warships and UAE warplanes supporting Greece has been defused, and Athens and Ankara are exploring sovereignty dispute resolution mechanisms.

In the Bay of Bengal, India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands form a lengthy north/south archipelago near the Strait of Malacca through which much of the world’s shipping fleet connects markets in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. China depends on accessing these lanes to sustain economic growth. Yet, Beijing continues to threaten New Delhi, typified when Chinese forces clubbed dozens of Indian soldiers to death in 2020 Himalayan border clashes.

A Chinese military assault near the island chain’s shipping lanes could lead to a cutoff of Chinese maritime access to the Indian Ocean’s maritime superhighway, damaging its domestic economy and triggering massive anti-CCP social unrest. India needs credible national and allied naval counter-forces to anti-ship ballistic missiles based in western China to secure its regional interests and future defense capabilities with confidence.

Mr. Biden and other world leaders focused on the key geopolitical and geo-economic issues of the day need to keep sharp eyes on these island contests to prevent seemingly minor diplomatic disputes from escalating into major strategic crises.

• John Sitilides, geopolitical strategist at Trilogy Advisors LLC, specializes in global risk analysis and regulatory affairs.

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