Global Blockade vs. China

Introductory Note

This post was initially called “Global Blockade vs. Russia, China.” To shorten the read time and allow specialists and others to focus on each potential adversary, I have split it into two posts, this one and “Global Blockade vs. Russia.”

Each post now examines the possible nuclear implications of a successful blockade and includes a new section on war termination—a phase we don’t generally think about as much as we should. If analysis shows that blockade can deliver anything close to what the hypothesis underlying this post promises, then plausible conditions for war termination may well arise. However, because China and Russia would seem certain to come to the aid of the other should it face defeat at the hands of a US blockade, even a “small” war could become prolonged and geographically expanded. No one needs reminding that wars between the great powers can reshape the map of global politics. A US war vs. China – with Russia’s aid or even full participation — has a good chance of producing tectonic political change, including within the warring parties. I have used the term “war termination,” not “victory.” That’s because, with all the parties in possession of nuclear arsenals, the game will never be over. We need to plan accordingly.

Purpose

To assess the potential of the historic practice of naval blockade in the current era. The departure point is recognition that the US and its allies possess global command of the sea. Students of sea power have long known that command of the sea cannot be an end in itself but can only take significance from the larger military and political objectives it may be used to achieve. Today the West can deny the use of the world ocean to all other nations. No nation can use it except at the West’s sufferance. Other nations may be capable of using their local waters—perhaps under contested circumstances—but not the world ocean on which international commerce depends. This last contention is the key to the West’s exploitation of its dominant advantage of the sea: economic blockade. Geoffrey Till has described it as “sea-based coercion,” or “more a form of naval diplomacy than acts of war.”*

As outlined here, economic blockade is a form of warfare that may be exactly suited to great power competition in the current era. It has deep historical roots but would be carried out on a historically unprecedented scale with promise of unprecedented strategic results. As noted on Clio’s Welcome page, I am not drawing these recommendations from analysis of current Chinese attitudes regarding any possible blockade that China might face. I am arguing from the logic of today’s strategic situation as seen from the US point of view.

Military Assumptions

The assumption of Western naval dominance is based on a broad reading of current relative naval capabilities, which seem likely to shift further in favor of the West as US building programs are implemented, and the military budgets of allies in Europe and the Pacific increase. But China has a burgeoning naval building program, too, as well as home-grown prowess in technological innovation that many say rivals that of the US and its allies. Thus, this assumption must be subjected to searching analysis, as do the politico-economic assumptions that follow.

Politico-Economic Assumptions

Preventing China from using the sea might have direct and far reaching consequences. China is already heavily dependent on seaborne import of energy, raw materials, and even foodstuffs. Additionally, its exports depend on use of the sea. For China the premier expression of that dependence is the massive, multi-year Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), half of which is known as the Maritime Silk Road. In sum, unimpeded use of the sea is a sine qua non of the functioning and growth of the China’s economy and its aspirations for status as a great power.

What Kind of War with China?

Determinants of the desirability and the details of blockade against China would be dictated by the nature of the war to be deterred/fought: the stakes in contention; and, the nature of the aggressive actions that China might take that are to be deterred or, if need be, responded to. It is my assumption that the US would resort to blockade only in response to China’s actions of a military nature—and not to actions in the purely political, much less the economic, sphere.

As this is written in the summer of 2019, it is difficult to see beyond two issues that might lead to war between China and the US: 1) the security and sovereignty of Taiwan; and, 2) China’s territorial claims to waters and islands in the South and East China Seas. The first issue is the big case that requires planning for a major US response. Such a conflict would likely have a fairly discernible binary outcome: Either Taiwan remains independent or it is absorbed into China. The US would be unlikely to accept the latter outcome because of the ideals that underpin its security policy as well as raw Realpolitik. Such stakes mean that whatever else the US does in response, it should be prepared to impose a full global blockade against China and keep it in force until China agrees to the restoration of the status quo ante.

The second issue is more complicated because the stakes that may be in contention are ill-defined. It is difficult to specify in advance what would constitute victory or defeat: who wins or loses what. Purely for purposes of illustration, I will posit here that war with China could arise as a result of aggressive Chinese military actions to assert sovereignty over contested islands or waters. In this case, something less than all-out blockade might be employed—its extent and duration calibrated to meet the possibly ambiguous circumstances at hand.

Proposed Actions vs. China

These actions are generally the same as those against Russia, described in the “Blockade vs. Russia” post. However, because of China’s sense of historical grievance against the West, public characterization of blockade vs. China should be as carefully crafted as possible to minimize the danger that China could claim it is being “bullied” by a US antagonist who is over-exploiting a position of strength.

There are a number of other important differences. In contrast to Russia, China can achieve its possible military objectives only by controlling the seas along its periphery—to invade Taiwan or to exert sovereignty over claimed islands and waters. While the US always has the option of seeking to deny Chinese forces such control, blockade as it is used here is a sea denial strategy focused on more distant waters. (Other blockade options exist. See for example Lieutenant Matthew Conners, US Navy, “Blockade the First Island Chain” Proceedings, Vol. 145/6/1,396 (June 2019).

A second difference is the minimal involvement of US and allied ground forces. In the Taiwan case there would be land areas to be fought over, but not by US forces on the ground. (I assume that, because the US has never done so over many decades, it would be unlikely to deploy US forces on Taiwanese soil to serve as a tripwire.) In the second case, assertions of Chinese sovereignty over areas of the sea, the contest would be solely at sea—though obviously land-based air and missiles would play a role. Note, however, that blockade might nonetheless result in war on the ground. (See below under discussions “Cons” and “War Termination.”)

Finally, there would be no NATO-like framework for military and political cooperation with allies of the US who may have conflicting interests in the issues at stake. The review of pros and cons that follows here will focus mainly on the second scenario, assertions of Chinese sovereignty over areas at sea.

Pros

  • The overarching advantage of blockade vs. China is that it could be implemented at little additional risk to US or allied forces—beyond the threats they already face from China’s long range anti-ship capabilities. Because relatively few Chinese imports originate in ports near China, ships carrying oil, raw materials, or food to the country could be interdicted at distances from China where there is little or no possibility that it could take defensive counteractions. As with Russia, seizure would be better than sinking Chinese ships. It is assumed that few third parties would be willing to risk ships against a US blockade.
  • Almost as important, the US would hold the initiative at both the tactical and the operational—that is, theater-wide—levels. Individual Chinese ships could be shadowed, disabled (see the post “Propulsion Disablers“), seized, or sunk. These would tactical decisions to be made in light of the broader strategic context. At the theater level, the US would calibrate the intensity of the blockade to fit the changing situation on the strategic issue over which the war was being fought. There would be little reason for urgency arising from blockade itself. It can be presumed that, after several Chinese warships and merchant ships are disabled or sunk, Chinese decision makers would recognize the difficult position that blockade presents. China specialists can offer informed assessments of China’s possible responses. I offer a general one below under the heading “War Termination.”
  • Blockade uses the existing capabilities of the Navy. Aside from upgrades in ISR (see below), improved Special Forces capabilities for ship seizure (not further addressed here), and focused planning, it requires little in the way of additional expenditures.
  • Blockade is an asymmetric response that would be difficult for China to answer. It could be used to augment US sea denial efforts mounted directly in the South and East China Seas, or it could be used on its own. The latter would avoid sending US forces into Chinese area denial zone. (I am grateful to Steve Wills for pointing this out, which, like many such creative insights may, on reflection, seem obvious. In fact, some readers may share with Steve and me puzzlement why this advantage alone has not already made blockade a fixture of strategic thinking regarding China.)
  • Blockade would render useless half of China’s BRI, including its Ice Silk Road component in the Arctic. China would face a choice: Give up expected payoff from vast investments in the BRI and its aspirations for influence befitting a global power, or desist from aggressive military action.
  • Some believe that China well understands its vulnerability at sea. The Economist (July 6, 2019, p. 47) quotes “Hu Bo, a prominent naval strategist at Peking University…” as saying “…it would be a ‘suicide mission’ for China to take any actions that might provoke a blockade….”
  • As in the Russia case, many of these goals might be achieved through economic sanctions alone. But if sanctions prove ineffective, and war ensues, blockade would be implemented. In any case, the veiled threat of blockade might underline the seriousness of economic sanctions and, potentially, increase their efficacy.

Implications/Complicating Factors

In contrast to Russia’s nuclear bellicosity, China, as far as I know, has not emphasized any readiness to resort to nuclear use except to answer nuclear threats against it. For the prudent US planner, however, the possibility of China’s nuclear response to a successful blockade cannot be ruled out. As in the Russia case, because blockade’s injury to China originates from US actions at sea, the first focus of China’s response would be at sea—likely targeting a CVSG with missiles launched from submarines outside Chinese territorial waters. And, as with Russia, the absence of symmetrical targets at sea would make the decision regarding a US response extremely difficult—and so in need of intense study. As argued in the post “Fleet-in-Being,” the casualties resulting from the loss of a major US ship(s) even from conventional strikes, not to mention a nuclear one, could transform a “small” war into a big one. We should not undertake blockade without thinking through these issues and similar ones taken up under “War Termination,” below.

Cons

  • Blockade vs. China may be judged too difficult to carry out. In particular, US ISR may not be up to the task of identifying, locating, and sorting out the myriad ships in the Chinese merchant fleet—the largest national fleet in the world. (China’s state-owned COSCO shipping company alone reportedly owned over 1000 ships in 2017.) The picture is further complicated by China’s fishing fleet, which reportedly comprises over 200,000 motorized vessels including more than 25,000 ships of 100 tons or greater.
  • If ISR cannot be upgraded to meet requirements for distant blockade—where the task may in fact be simpler because Chinese ships may be easier to isolate against a less complicated background—then effort would have to be focused nearer to China proper. This would diminish one of the most attractive features of blockade at least with respect to the surface Navy. It is assumed that contribution of SSNs would be little affected. Nor would it affect US offensive mine warfare, which in due course may include propulsion disabling warheads. (As noted, the US would hold the initiative and could implement blockade at the pace it sees fit.)
  • Even if ISR is upgraded, the task of marshaling and coordinating US and allied forces for a global interdiction campaign could be extremely challenging because of the many ports from which China’s imports originate, the large oceanic areas, and the thousands of potential targets involved.
  • China might respond with offensive mining of the ports of US forward bases, the ports of US allies, or US ports in Hawaii or even the West Coast. A blockade strategy would dictate serious attention to US countermine capabilities.
  • If analysis shows blockade could yield the promise outlined above, US strategic thinking may come to center too much on the conflictual dimensions of relations with China and so let cooperative possibilities atrophy. If possible, blockade should be kept in the background of US-Chinese military-to-military diplomacy.
  • As in the Russia case, blockade vs. China might become oversold in US national security planning processes—its merits inflated and its risks understated. This danger might be acute because of blockade’s obvious advantages over sending Seventh Fleet forward to fight its way through China’s defensive barriers into area denial zones.

War Termination, the Critical Role of Russia, and China’s Unilateral Options

If a global blockade of China should prove a growing military success, would war termination be on the horizon? The answer may be found in a complex series of questions—some answerable, some less so. First, would the Chinese economy in general be forced into sharp contraction? How specifically would its war economy be affected? Could autarkical measures show prospect of providing relief? Could external aid from Russia (see below) permit China to fight on for a considerable period? Second, to the degree there is economic distress, would that distress translate into internal political instability and/or external military vulnerability? Specialists in Chinese economic and Chinese security affairs, inside and outside the US government, must address these questions to determine the desirability of a blockade strategy. The range of uncertainty can probably be narrowed considerably. China specialists will need deep liaison with specialists on Russia. The China-Russia relationship is likely the critical variable in the war termination equation vs. China.

Russia would be highly likely to come to China’s aid for exactly the balance-of-power motivation that China would feel if Russia were threatened with defeat by blockade. Russia shares a long border with China and has abundant, indeed growing, energy and grain surpluses. Through the BRI, China is steadily improving the network of transport connections—road, rail, pipeline, and electrical power grid—that connect it with Russia. Russia would have an obvious interest in keeping the US in war as long as possible and could move aggressively in its own sphere while the US is preoccupied with China.

Russia could support China through covert military action, especially undersea operations including mine warfare. Guarding against such possibilities would, at a minimum, absorb US forces. Planning for blockade vs China would need to take account Russia’s possible role, to frame US declaratory policy toward Russia, and to draw the boundaries of blockade exclusion zones accordingly.

Russia’s support could possibly prop up China’s economy for a lengthy period. The importance of the Russia-China dynamic dictates that declaratory policy and other public communications of both the Russians and the Chinese should be carefully analyzed for signs that the two continental powers may be overcoming their Cold War mistrust to prepare for something approaching or even constituting an alliance. Today, some see that in response to the pressure of the West’s economic sanctions, a relatively weak Russia (GDP around one-sixth that of China) is being drawn reluctantly into China’s economic and technological orbit. The possibility that either nation might go war with the US and its allies seems likely to accelerate this trend toward its logical conclusion.

Other states like North Korea and Iran might seek to take advantage of a US-China war to advance toward their own security objectives. Such actions would increase stress on US forces and indirectly aid China. The obvious focus of blockade against China would be China itself. However, a war versus a great power opponent can have fairly predictable but also unknowable consequences. Thus, decisions regarding forward commitment of US and allied naval forces should be made with an eye toward fleet-in-being (see the post on that subject) and other conservative principles.

Beyond benefiting from Russia’s support and in contrast to Russia itself, China possesses the capability to respond to blockade at the conventional level on its own and might have strong reasons to do so. Capitulation to the US could pose a threat to the regime in Beijing. Chinese nationalists might fear that accepting defeat at the hands of blockade would make China a maritime vassal of a US-led alliance.

Radical undertakings by China might seem unlikely today. However, we do have the precedent of China’s intervention in the Korea War. And, after all, our departure point is already a war between the US and China. If blockade is hurting China badly and the pain seems destined to get worse, China might well choose to invade Taiwan and underwrite a North Korean invasion of the South. (This assumes the Kim regime had not already mounted one.)

China would thus bring its greatest military asset, the PLA, into play. It could hope for quick victories on both fronts—especially if the US had not prepared for these eventualities. The result might be the loss of both Taipei and Seoul, and possibly a redrawn geo-political map: China and its junior partner Russia dominating MacKinder’s Eurasian “Heartland” and the US leading the many fractious states of the “Rimlands.”

Regardless of whether such tectonic change lies in the future, US plans for blockade of China today would have to be deeply Joint, starting at the strategic level. Blockade at sea means reinforcement on the ground in Korea. The Kim regime has almost certainly foreseen the opportunities that a US-China war would present. Delayed and urgent dispatch of US reinforcements might well “justify” and trigger an aggressive move south by Pyongyang. Similar thinking should be devoted to the stiffening the defense of Taiwan.

Conclusion

Global blockade against China holds considerable promise. It would operate at the level of national strategy, it could be applied in a variety of scenarios, and it might be implemented at relatively low risk with existing forces at low economic costs. Further, at this time, blockade would be difficult for China to answer. On the other hand, blockade would face a daunting roster of cons.

Blockade’s promise should be carefully assessed. What we need now are studies and games done by teams of people who combine expertise in naval operations, international economics, and knowledge of Chinese (and Russian) national security policy. If blockade is deemed likely to produce success and becomes incorporated into a 21st century Maritime Strategy, we need to think hard about China’s—and Russia’s—possible responses and how to deal with them.

*Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (4th ed.) (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 203.

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, August 27, 2019

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