Island (S)hopping: Part One
While we are all focused on the horrors of Ukraine, the Superpowers are busy going after tiny remote islands that are hard to spot on a map but of immense strategic security importance. While the West is busy expunging the record of colonial history by banning flags, China and Russia are busy planting flags on places hardly anybody can locate on a map. It is odd that in the modern world, tiny little specks of ground in the midst of huge oceans should matter anymore. But they do. If the world is like a Monopoly Board, Russia and China are staking claims to territory that had previously been valued at practically nothing. China, in particular, is now island-hopping and island-shopping. Islomania is now driving geopolitics amongst all the Superpowers.
Note that President Putin’s close advisor, Alexander Dugin has long written about the idea that “Thalassocracies” (states that project power through control of the seas and shipping lanes) are more powerful than “Tellurocracies" (land-based hegemony"). Remember that Peter the Great, Putin’s idol, turned Russia into a Thalassocracy or sea power, a feat admired by Alfred Thayer Mahan. The book Thayer-Mahan published in 1890 remains the playbook for modern maritime strategy.
I noticed this trend and wrote about it back in 2015 when China began making a play for the Azores. It sits in the island chain called Macaronesia. It belongs to Portugal and has a NATO-built airfield in Lajes. But, when Portugal hit the wall with its debt problem after the Financial Crisis, it began to think of clever ways to raise cash for the coffers. They sold Golden Visas to foreigners, initially mainly to Chinese nationals. They also sold their airline and telecom assets to the Chinese. In addition, they started to cut a deal with China that would allow China to use the airbase in Lajes. NATO had said they didn’t want to pay rent for it at the time. There was no need for the facility. But Portugal needed cash. By 2020, the US, which had not been paying attention, suddenly realized the game and started pressing Portugal to push China out. After all, if Diego Garcia in the British-controlled Chagos island chain is critical to US military operations in the Middle East and across Asia, you can understand why China might find the Azores valuable as a foothold in the Atlantic.
Remember that the superpowers have a history of starting wars over islands. Remember The Falklands? Pearl Harbour? More recently Snake Island in Ukraine? Who can forget the Ukrainian guard who responded to the Russian Destroyer’s demands for him and his colleagues to leave? "Russian warship, go f*** yourself." That island remains highly contested because of its strategic importance, Today the Swedes are arming the island of Gotland which is in the Baltic Sea, anticipating the possibility of a battle with Russia there. The Danes are doing the same on another island, one in the Baltic Sea, Bornholm, arming it with American Harpoon missiles, turning it into what the Russian Ambassador called a “military bridgehead”.
Meanwhile, Russia is reaching for greater control over the islands that separate the Sea of Ohotsk and the Pacific. Japan calls these 56 mainly uninhabited islands known as the Kuril Islands, the “Northern Territory”. Russia occupies them. When President Biden landed in Tokyo for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), meeting a few days ago, both Russia and China sent fighter jets, bombers and reconnaissance planes into the airspace over these islands and Korea in response.
No less a figure than Dmitry Rogozin, Head of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, has just suggested that these disputed Kurile islands be given Russian names. According to Reuters, he proposed that the “Habomai Islands” should be renamed” “the archipelago of Russian hero sailors”. He wants another called “Varyag in honour of a cruiser whose sinking started the Russo-Japanese War in 1904” which the Japanese will not be happy to accommodate. Remember that Russia and Japan never officially ceased hostilities after WWII. There is no peace treaty.
Many other islands are in play in the world of geopolitics. Perhaps you caught the announcement that China has cut a deal with the Solomon Islands that will allow them to station their Navy there? The Bilateral Security Pact between China and The Solomons caught Australia and New Zealand by surprise. Australia is now going to be within easy range of China’s nuclear and naval might. The Solomon Islands are the home of Guadalcanal which holds a special place in American history because of the fierce WWII battles there in 1942. China has announced a grand tour of ten Pacific Islands which inevitably means deals have already been struck and are just waiting for the red-carpet ceremony and press conferences to announce them. ABC News reports that Wang Wenbin, deputy director of China’s Foreign Ministry Information Department, will visit the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste over the next two weeks and will sign the agreements at the second-ever meeting of Pacific Island Foreign Ministers and China. It will be held in Fiji.
The President of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, said China’s efforts will give rise to a new "Cold War" in the Pacific. Perhaps this is the start of a Cold War in Hot places? Everyone is well familiar with Beijing’s focus on the islands in the South China Sea and the Spratly islands. But fewer have paid attention to the islands in the Bay of Bengal or to Seychelles. Seychelles has also been establishing deeper bilateral ties with China. In the early 1990s, China established a listening station in the Coco Islands in the Bay of Bengal. India responded by fortifying The Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
So, perhaps now it becomes clearer why the US military that Russian and Chinese naval vessels keep popping up near America’s principal islands in the Pacific – Hawaii, Guam and The Aleutian Islands. It is easy to understand the Aleutians.
But Hawaii? At first, it sounds like a joke. The Russians in Hawaii? It seems that they keep sending vessels near the Barking Sands Missile facility in Kauai. It is self-described as “Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands (PMRF) is the world's largest instrumented multi-environmental range capable of supported surface, subsurface, air, and space operations simultaneously. There are over 1,100 square miles of instrumented underwater range and over 42,000 square miles of controlled airspace.” China and Russia showed up when the US did large military exercises off Hawaii in 2021.
The island of Guam has become the principal Pacific base for the American Marines at Camp Blaz and the US Navy. Construction there is advancing as the US shifts assets away from the island of Okinawa in Japan. After a series of incidents and accidents, Japanese officials became so enraged with the behavior of American troops in Okinawa that they said they’d pay for them to go somewhere else. That’s Guam. This explains why these days China practices drills on mock targets in China’s Taklamakan desert for attacking not just Taiwan, another critical island, but also Guam. Its monikers include, “the tip of the spear” and “America's unsinkable aircraft carrier’ which only further highlights the strategic importance of this remote island.
But the attention now is not on challenging established US island bases like Guam and Diego Garcia. Instead, the Chinese and Russians are busy building bases all over the world on islands of their own….
This article continues with Island (S)hopping: Part Two.
great reading, i had no idea that the russians and chinese were slowly encasing us, while we are distracted by penises and vaginas and toilets
I wonder if the Chinese and the Russians understand that it's Pride Month, and they need to fly the appropriate flags and use twitter to show everyone how good they are.