In April, 2020, CNO Admiral Michael Gilday did something none of his predecessors had done since at least 1945. In Naval Doctrine Publication 1 (April 2020), he addressed “blockade” as a strategic principle. He said “In broad theoretical terms, naval forces exist [along with other strategic tasks] to: … Prevent an adversary’s seaborne movement of commerce and military forces.” This strategic task falls under sea denial, which “is offensive in nature because the attacker [that is, the Navy of the USA and those of its allies] chooses the times, places, and targets of attack. The ability to control or deny sea space may also be applied to conduct blockades [emphasis added] in wartime or as a means to control crises.” (p.21)
Admiral Gilday has broken a 75-year precedent. Blockade, long ignored and rejected by the Navy, now has official standing. Perhaps its appearance is a consequence of the shift in 2018 of the basis for DOD planning away from terrorism and toward great power competition. China and Russia, two potential adversaries, are great continental powers whose geography and growing trade dependence nonetheless makes them vulnerable to blockade. This post will address blockade vs. China.
The unprecedented changes in geopolitics brought by globalization have made China dependent on unfettered use of the sea and so vulnerable to coercion from the sea.
Should there be war, the US and its allies should declare a blockade on China and enforce it through all available civil and military, primarily naval, means.
Blockade aims to produce coercive effects on China’s behavior at the level of national strategy. That is the end sought.
Enforcing blockade is a strategy for the employment of the US Navy on behalf of blockade; it is a means to that end.
Blockade and blockade enforcement are separate realms. They should be analyzed independently and not be conflated.
Blockade enforcement is a complement to other naval force employment strategies, not an alternative or substitute.
Blockade operates at the fundamental level of Huntington’s “strategic concept.” It is the most robust strategic option available. It operates across all scenarios irrespective of the war’s stakes or geographic scope.
Blockade continues to provide the US a position of strength for dealing with a “postwar” world. It remains an option as long as the US can enforce it. Adversaries would likely take this reality into account in their war termination calculations.
Enforcing blockade takes advantage of China’s geographic disadvantages in accessing the world ocean.
The Navy should assess 1) the strategic promise of blockade – its likely effects on China’s ability and willingness to wage war and 2) the operational feasibility of blockade enforcement, simultaneously with other strategic tasks.
If blockade is judged likely to contribute toward deterring war or producing an acceptable outcome in war, blockade enforcement vs. China should be quietly, deliberately incorporated into a 21st-century Maritime Strategy.
This post assesses the potential of blockade and its enforcement through naval and other military action in a war versus China. Such a war is entirely hypothetical. We are obliged to think about it even though its consequences could be calamitous, and the US should do everything in its power to avoid it. I strongly endorse this point, as does every other analyst in the public domain.
Defining Blockade and Blockade Enforcement (BE)
In a war with China, the US would declare a global blockade of China. This would be a national strategy. The immediate aim would be to cut off China from everything except what it can access via its land borders and through cyberspace—and these would inhibited as much as possible. The larger aim would be to exploit the resulting coercive effects in negotiations for war termination.
In addition to all civil means, blockade would be enforced through military action, primarily naval. Hereafter blockade enforcement will be referred to as BE, a component of naval strategy. In the past, blockade and BE have been combined, without differentiation, under the single term “blockade.” This is a conceptual mistake (of which this writer has too long been guilty and herewith apologizes).
Blockade and its enforcement are two very different things, as can be seen from the analytical issues that arise in each and the specialties needed to address each. Assessing blockade calls for specialists in diplomacy, international trade, and internal Chinese economics and politics. Assessing BE, on the other hand, requires specialists in naval warfare (and other forms of warfare that affect BE) at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. In terms of Huntington’s “strategic concept,” BE is a means. It exists to serve blockade. Blockade produces the desired end —coercive strategic effect in war. These are separate realms, and the terminology of analysis and planning should reflect that fact.
That BE would for the Navy operate at a Huntingtonian level can be further confirmed by noting that blockade appears likely to produce strategic effect regardless of scenario—regardless of the war’s geographic scope or the stakes over which it is being fought. In this sense it is the most robust of any strategy currently being considered. It also provides an important strategic option for dealing with adversaries and erstwhile allies in the war termination and postwar phases. Adversaries would doubtless take this reality into account in their decision whether to stop fighting. This is especially so should combat end with an indecisive outcome—which is as likely a possibility as any other, in view of the absence of ideological or territorial differences between the US and China and their substantial nuclear arsenals.
China’s geography (like that of Russia) makes it particularly vulnerable to blockade. As Holmes has noted: “Commerce has oriented China toward the sea. Yet it faces potential barricades from occupants of the first island chain.” (James R. Holmes, A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, Naval Institute Press (Annapolis, MD, 2019), p. 34) That same geography is marked by chokepoints where naval blockaders may focus their efforts at sea.
Globalization has made China, a great continental power, dependent on the use of the sea and thus vulnerable to coercion from the sea. This condition has no historical precedent. It exists today and may endure for decades, at least until 1) China’s economy becomes far more reliant on its internal market and much less so on exports, 2) world trade becomes a far smaller component of global GDP as a result of rising tariff barriers or pandemics like the Covid-19 crisis, 3) China develops more efficient physical links and closer economic ties with its land neighbors especially Russia, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), who can supply it raw materials as well as serve as markets for its industrial output, or 4) war forces China to turn its back on the world ocean and, through military means and exploitation of the BRI, seek to dominate its land neighbors and ultimately Mackinder’s “world island.”
It is imperative to recognize that BE is not an alternative to other forms of military action at sea. In a big war between the two great powers many BE effects would unavoidably arise from the nature of the strategic relationship between the US and China. Would the US be the first great sea power not to prevent its continental adversary from using the sea? Would the US choose not to attack its adversary’s principal maritime vulnerability? In a war where the US is shooting at Chinese naval ships, would it allow that nation’s merchant ships to sail wherever they wish? Would China and its friends even send merchant ships out of port and into the combat zone?
In April, 2020, CNO Admiral Gilday did something none of his predecessors had done since at least 1945. In Naval Doctrine Publication 1, he addressed “blockade” as a strategic principle. He said “In broad theoretical terms, naval forces exist [along with other strategic tasks] to: … Prevent an adversary’s seaborne movement of commerce and military forces.” This strategic task falls under the category of sea denial, which “is offensive in nature because the attacker [that is, the US and allied navies] chooses the times, places, and targets of attack. The ability to control or deny sea space may also be applied to conduct blockades [emphasis added] in wartime or as a means to control crises.” (p.21)
It is not yet known how far reaching the effects of this essentially unprecedented pronouncement may be on Navy planning. Though the Navy is a famously hierarchical institution, it sometimes speaks with several voices about its strategic intentions. There is no guarantee that “blockade” will be revived out of ancient history and take on a new meaning in the 21st century.
Given the decades and decades across which the Navy has ignored blockade, it may well be that the Navy will continue to ignore it. That is, the Navy will effectively answer yes to the rhetorical questions posed earlier. If so, I respectfully suggest it will likely find its cherished, and quite valid, claim to intellectual rigor difficult to maintain. One possible consequence will be that its other strategic arguments and justifications will be viewed with skepticism.
It cannot be ruled out that, even against Navy objections, the Intelligence Community will investigate China’s vulnerability to coercion from the sea and make its findings officially known. During the Cold War, the IC and the Navy clashed regarding the Soviet navy’s strategic priorities and the Community’s interpretations of Soviet plans versus the Atlantic SLOCs prevailed. Today, that would likely be the case with China’s vulnerability to blockade—with possibly further deleterious effects on the Navy’s reputation for intellectual probity.
Independent of these issues, which are mainly internal to the Navy, some outside analysts in the West see blockade as undesirable because China may be able to compensate for and possibly elude its effects. If this were so, blockade would not produce desired strategic results. Or it might be too slow-acting to be strategically useful. Moreover, it might have highly undesirable side effects. Collins (cited below) observes that a blockade of China would have large negative effects on the economies of US and its allies and on the global economy at large, resulting in a “global economic output loss of a magnitude at least equal to that of the 2008–2009 Great Recession—if not the Great Depression itself….” This is undoubtedly true and is a major reason that the US would never start a war with China (nor, in this writer’s opinion, would China start one with us, which of course hardly rules out the possibility of such a war).
However, it should be recognized that war with China and China’s oceanic trade could not coexist. Assessments of China’s possible internal and external economic responses to a wartime blockade are obviously needed. Beyond the importance of the findings for a possible BE mission for the Navy, such assessments would provide details crucial in shaping US policy for dealing with the global economy of a world at war. The attitudes and behavior of all states on China’s borders, neutrals, indeed US allies, could play an important role in determining the efficacy of blockade.
In the hypothetical case at hand, a big war that has been started by China, many states will suffer. Few will prosper. The attitudes of most states toward the warring parties will be formed to some degree by who they think is responsible for the war, but far more by who they think is going to win it. That being the case, the US should mount a vigorous campaign to gain neutral and promote allied support for its wartime blockade, while minimizing, as much as possible, negative economic effects on third parties.
There should be no limits on the geographic scope and nature of blockade enforcement actions. The US and its allies would interdict Chinese seaborne trade as well as all air traffic. Maritime states whose geography might permit them to serve as “blockade-busters,” would become targets of US diplomacy and, if necessary coercive action, including via interdiction of their seaborne trade. (Continental states on China’s western border are addressed separately below.)
China would also be deprived of access to the new “blue economy”—marine energy, deep-sea mining, bio-prospecting, etc.—that some see as a bright new economic-ecologic frontier. And China would be similarly deprived of access to any of its assets lying beyond its land borders. The Maritime Silk Road of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would be shut down. Submarine communication cables lying on the seabed that connect China with the rest of the world would be severed.
With the cooperation of the host countries, the US and its allies would sequestrate all Chinese-owned properties in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This last would be a post-colonial version of the Allies’ seizure during World War I of Germany’s colonies, German East Africa, German Southwest Africa, and Cameroon. Chinese-owned factories and agricultural enterprises would continue to operate but exclusively for the benefit of the host country. Chinese construction projects might be continued, where possible, under Western aegis.
Finally, blockade would involve severance of China’s financial and technological links with the world. The US and its allies would force China to rely mainly on indigenous means to compete for technological superiority.
Today, blockade enforcement would totally deny an adversary the use of the sea. It is not a one-off measure like the quarantine of Cuba in 1962. It is a component of naval strategy.
Because “blockade” has carried such negative connotations for so many years, it is important to distinguish its enforcement in the twenty-first century from similar “blockades” in the past.
Blockade enforcement in a war with China (or Russia) would be global. In a severe crisis that threatens to become war, the US NCA might order the marking or shadowing of high value Chinese merchant ships. This would signal the earnestness of US intentions and the consequences for China of crossing the line into outright hostilities. From D-day onward Chinese ships, wherever found, would be disabled, seized, or, as a last resort, sunk.
BE would involve little or no board and search. Based on a library of sonic signatures of China’s naval and civil ships of all types, collected over time in peace, blockade enforcement would utilize advanced technologies to distinguish with reasonable confidence enemy ships from those of third parties. It would make maximum use of propulsion disablers (see the Propulsion Disablers post.) to present China with the twin problems of loss of the cargo of interdicted ships and of retrieval of disabled ships and their crews. (China might simply ignore the latter. If so, China would put the onus on the US and its allies to determine the fate of their citizens or those of third nations aboard disabled ships left powerless before an unforgiving sea.) The US and allies would seize disabled ships to be towed to safe harbor, cargoes confiscated and crews interned. Given the size and dispersal of China’s merchant and ocean-going fishing fleets, this might be a challenging task at least initially. Blockade would involve declared exclusion zones near China which third-party ships would enter at their peril—mainly to propulsion-disabler attack. All elements of US naval power would be employed, including the Marine Corps as described (and critiqued) in Dustin League and Dan Justice ,“SINK ‘EM ALL: ENVISIONING MARINE CORPS MARITIME INTERDICTION,” CIMSEC JUNE 8, 2020.
Blockade and Blockade Enforcement in Navy Thinking
Blockade and its enforcement have been the subject of lively public discussion (the work of Collins, Hammes, Mirsky, Vescovo, Sand, and Holmes* will be cited here). In the discussion that follows blockade and BE will be used when the time frame is now or the future. “Blockade” will necessarily be used when the time frame is earlier.
However, prior to the promulgation of NDP-1, blockade has not had official standing. It has never been mentioned in the Navy’s official statements of its strategic purposes in war versus China—or anyone else. Blockade does not exist as an entry in the January 2020 DOD Dictionary of Military Terms. This is an amazing development. Think of it: protecting or attacking seaborne commerce, one of the main reasons that navies came into existence millennia ago, had disappeared from the 21st-century strategic discourse of the US Navy.
A review of the seven documents seen by Tangredi**as expressing recent Navy strategic thought shows that none addressed the concept. Among the seven, How We Fight ***is by far the most principled. It deserves brief attention as a reflection of Navy thinking. The work describes itself as “not [sic] about hardware, platforms or systems.” (p.2). Thus it is about why and how to use such physical means. It is compelling because, like the Maritime Strategy of the mid-1980s, it looks exclusively at how to use existing forces. It does not address the acquisition of force for the future. (Later we will look at the current vs. future issue more closely.)
How We Fight offers a magisterial quote (p.26) from Mahan to make the point about navies and international commerce: “It is not the taking of individual ships or convoys…that strikes down the money power of a nation; it is the possession of that overbearing power on the sea that drives the enemy’s flag from it… and by controlling the great common, closes the highway by which commerce moves to and from the enemy’s shore. This overbearing power can only be exercised by great navies.”
In strategic terms Mahan provides a portal that can be entered from the defensive or from the offensive side. How We Fight chooses only strategic defense: The US Navy is to guarantee that the US and its allies have access to overseas raw materials and markets by defending against threats to that access and against threats to the transit on the sea of the resulting commerce. Offense, in which the Navy threatens adversaries’ access and transit is not taken up. This is puzzling because Mahan’s formulation 1) seems to emphasize the offense, “closing the highway,” and 2) the US Navy is the only navy on the planet with a reasonable claim to Mahanian “great[ness].”
Blockade was not mentioned in the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, nor in any publicly available Navy planning documents from earlier in the Cold War. I will hazard that the Navy has not thought about blockade as a strategic use of forces since 1945. This seems remarkable given the immense success during World War II of the US submarine blockade of Japan and its mining of Japan’s coastal waters, not to mention subsequent successful “blockades“ like the quarantine of Cuba in 1962 or the mining of North Vietnamese ports in 1972,
For generations of Navy thinkers blockade is, at most, a historical concept. (Till points out that the US is not alone in this regard: “attack and/or protection of merchant shipping …” “hardly appears in many formulations of maritime doctrine around the world….”)****
Why Has the Navy Ignored Blockade?
(Readers whose interest is mainly in the strategic assessment of blockade are invited to skip over this section to Military Assumptions below.)
Explanations by outsiders regarding why blockade versus China (or against anyone else) has been officially ignored necessarily have a speculative tone. Many seem plausible. Let’s look at five along with a few words of critique on each.
First, it may be that US actions taken at sea against China’s A2/AD are expected to produce the effects of blockade enforcement. China’s ports would be closed and its merchant fleet would be unlikely to sail because of the risk of hostile action. Third parties, perhaps under protest, seem likely to respect US wartime exclusion zones.
However, this kind of inadvertent BE would be far less effective, and much more subject to undesirable side effects, than one that had been planned in advance, thoroughly coordinated inside the US government and with allies and with vulnerable neutrals, and so implemented with focused operational efficiency. If you are going to end up doing BE, even if that hadn’t been your main intention, you would want to think it through and do it to best effect. For example, as in planning for BE vs Russia, during a period of severe crisis, high value Chinese civil ships might be marked and shadowed.
Second, it may be, as Till has noted, blockade is not viewed as “military action.” Seizing or sinking merchant ships is not the kind of self-defined “fighting” the Navy was created to do (see for example Adm, USN, Scott H.Swift, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” Proceedings 144/5/1,383 (May 2018), pp. 28–33, available at wwwusni.org/.) In a rough vernacular, we didn’t buy the F-35 to shoot at containerships. It may also be that the US Navy, whose history is steeped in defending SLOCs, does not easily conceive of itself as attacking them.
Instead, the Navy’s post-Cold War experience with blockade, e.g., Maritime Interception Operations, shows that its execution ties forces to a specific geographic area for open-ended periods. It is a burdensome, resource-absorbing chore better assigned to allies or the US Coast Guard. Blockade has a rich history. (In addition to Till, pp. 238-41 and chap. 13, see Bruce Elleman and S.C.M. Paine (eds), Naval Blockades and Seapower: Strategies and Counter-Strategies, 1805-2005 (London: Routledge 2006)). Enforcing blockade should not be rejected today because it is seen as insufficiently warrior-like. Navy planners, warriors all, rightly pride themselves on intellectual rigor and “fighting smart.” BE is “fighting smart.”
Third, Collins has raised a deeper issue: that consideration of blockade enforcement as a strategic option might divert attention from, and thus undercut arguments for, the need to acquire larger, more robust forces to overcome China A2/AD barriers. In the crude terminology of inter-service competition, blockade enforcement is not a “force-builder.” Indeed, critics of the Navy might argue that blockade implies the opposite: that the United States already possesses decisive naval superiority and has little need to acquire further naval capabilities.
The Collins’ articles point to a problem that is rarely explicitly acknowledged. Within the bureaucratic structure of Navy planning lies the inherent possibility that decisions about the employment of existing forces may be colored by the desire to craft the most effective rationale for procurement of future forces. At the flag level the same offices are responsible for making and articulating the justifications for both kinds of decisions. The result is neither illogical nor surprising. Armed conflict with a major opponent is not viewed as imminent, but the struggle for the Navy’s share of the national defense budget definitely is going on right now. Indeed, the task of acquiring adequate forces constantly demands the attention of the Navy’s leaders and likely has done so throughout their careers. If the rationale for use of current forces is in tension with that for acquisition of future forces, the leadership is inclined to favor advancing the rationale for future forces.
This need not be so. To the degree there may be a current-versus-future dilemma, the leadership’s first obligation should be to best use the existing Navy that the nation has provided and its predecessors have shaped.
The force procurement future should not dictate the force employment present. The crucial priority today is to underwrite diplomacy and deter aggression by adversaries through being ready to fight a war and, if war nonetheless comes, terminate it successfully. Those seeing things otherwise would seem to have an obligation to articulate why. That means, specifically, to explain why you choose not to attack your adversary’s long standing, enduring and possibly decisive vulnerability.
Fourth, articulating plans for blockade enforcement today may not only compete with the rational for future force requirements. It also competes for today’s Navy planning and training resources. There is only so much time, and you cannot plan for everything. It’s an open question whether the Navy planning system has sufficient bandwidth to deal with anti-A2/AD and with blockade enforcement simultaneously. After all, planning only for anti-A2/AD itself is today seen as an incomplete work in progress, not just within the Navy, but also outside it in the Joint arena.
It is not at all clear that blockade and blockade enforcement would find a receptive hearing in the Joint arena and beyond, at the level of national strategy approved by the President. The National Defense Strategy of 2018 is devoid of structure or terminology to permit consideration of the use of US sea power to affect the course, and, possibly, the outcome of a major war—which is exactly what blockade, as defined here, would aim to accomplish. This absence of needed intellectual architecture is reflected in the highly informed recent critique of 2018 NDS by Hal Brands and Evan Braden Montgomery. (See their “One War is Not Enough: Strategy and Force Planning for Great Power Competition,” (Texas National Security Review, Vol 3, Issue 2, Spring 2020).
This suggests that the Navy would face an uphill fight if it tried to advance blockade in the Joint arena. The Navy/Marine Corps would have to be utterly convinced of the feasibility of blockade enforcement and to have done (on its own or through the Intelligence Community) credible estimates of the vulnerability of China and Russia to blockade. And it would likely have to influence a redrafting of the NSD so that the document will accommodate the expression of the strategic use of sea power.
If planning resources are limited, so too is training time. To the degree that preparing for blockade takes time away from preparing for anti-A2/AD or other missions, hard choices must be made. Little wonder that a major “new” strategic task like BE has been given short shrift.
Fifth, how to best use the total force is problematic. BE’s implementation would put heavy demands on the already overstretched submarine and SEAL forces. At the same time the role that the carriers and amphibious forces might play seems less clear. But this is not an issue unique to BE. It is one that Navy and Marine Corps planners are wrestling with today in all big war scenarios.
In the case of BE, US carriers would be heavily employed in the war’s initial period in sweeping the seas of enemy civil ships of all types as well as any naval forces that might try to protect them. (Aviation-capable amphibious ships—perhaps with some modifications—might be similarly employed in the war’s initial period.) Given the large size of the Chinese merchant and fishing fleets this might not be a brief process.
Subsequent patrol of the world ocean to ensure that the BE vise remains tightly closed might be left mainly to allied navies, freeing US carriers for other tasks. Obviously, a war with China could occasion a host of other threats to allies of the US in which the carriers and amphibs/USMC could provide an urgent and highly useful response—e.g., to North Korea’s threat to the South, Russia’s aggression against NATO members or others on its western periphery, Iranian moves in the Mideast.
It is assumed that the US and its allies possess global naval dominance. This assumption is based on a broad reading of current relative naval capabilities, which, for the near term, 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. (This says nothing about longer term force structure needs.)
In local waters near China, China may or may not be able to prevent the US from achieving control, should it seek to. But the US can almost certainly deny China control even of waters near China. For example, China might try to express its “sovereignty” over the South China Sea by drilling oil wells there. But China would not be able to move any recovered oil to the mainland if the US chose to prevent that action. Similarly, if China were to seize Taiwan, the US might harass or even interrupt its sea communications with the mainland.
However, the balance of forces is rarely static. China’s naval capabilities are improving at an accelerating rate. This assumption must be subjected to searching and continuing analysis, as do the politico-economic assumptions that follow.
Blockade, underwritten by BE, would likely have direct and far-reaching consequences. China is already heavily dependent on seaborne import of energy, raw materials, and even foodstuffs. As for imports, the effects of blockade must be evaluated in light of their totality—fuel, raw materials, manufactured components, foodstuffs—not fuel alone (as is creatively analyzed by Collins and Murray (2008), and Collins (2018).
In any case, it is not imports that are the first, likely key, mechanism of blockade’s coercive effect. Rather, it is exports. Trade dominates China’s economy, accounting for over half of China’s GDP in 2012, according to the CIA Fact Book, cited by Hammes. The remarkable, decades-long growth of China’s economy has been driven by export of manufactured goods. Much of its economy is structured to produce and sell exports, many as intermediate products in global supply chains or as end products tailored exclusively for Western customers. Depriving China of its exports, as well as imports, would have a strong disruptive effect.
Its reliance on sea-borne trade is the main source of China’s vulnerability. However trade does not tell the whole story. China has made immense investments in its merchant and fishing fleets and in its ship-building and port operation industries. Even if trade somehow became unimportant to China, the nation would almost certainly continue to pursue economic reward from operations requiring access to the world ocean. It simply has sunk huge sums and has placed outsized hopes in industries which have no meaning if China is cut off from the sea.
State-owned COSCO Shipping company says it is the world’s largest, with over 1,000 ocean-going ships. To this, one must consider China’s fishing fleet which is unquestionably by far the world’s largest. In sum, the monetary value of trade transactions alone, important as it is, does not capture China’s need for unfettered use of the sea.
Dooley has asked whether China may be historically unique among nascent/maturing maritime powers in that it has produced a huge merchant fleet but thus far not a navy to guard it. (Howard J. Dooley, “The Great Leap Outward: China’s Maritime Renaissance,” The Journal of East Asian Affairs, vol. 26, no. 1, 2012, pp. 53–76. JSTOR.)
Eventually China will likely choose to acquire naval forces of sufficient size and capability for that purpose. It is too early to know whether that decision has already been taken. Knowledgeable analysts like Michael McDevitt have speculated that China might acquire a navy comparable to that of the Imperial Japanese Navy which in the 1930s and 1940’s challenged America’s. (Michael McDevitt (Radm, USN, ret.) “China’s Far Sea’s Navy: The Implications of the “Open Seas Protection” Mission,” A Paper for the “China as a Maritime Power” Conference, CNA Building, Arlington, Virginia, revised and updated April 2016, pp. 4-5.)
Regretfully, we may be looking at a classic expression of the security dilemma. If the US adopts a blockade strategy vs. China, that action might trigger and justify China’s obvious reaction: acquisition of a “great” navy to counter the US with resulting bad relations, if not an occasion for war, with America. Though China’s naval building programs might require decades to achieve something approaching parity with the US, it is not too early to consider how to avoid adding a naval arms race to the many issues that have contributed to the downward slide of US relations with China over at least the last five years. It must be added that China’s planners, following the dictate that their first obligation is to defend the nations vulnerabilities—independent of any specific threat they may face—will build a great navy even if the US formally eschews blockade. (Another expression of why the relations between the great powers always tend to be “tragic, as John Mearsheimer argues in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (NY: W.W. Norton, 2001
It would be the job of experts on China’s economy and on its political system to estimate the effects that blockade might have on the Chinese economy, the measures that China might take in compensation, and the likely consequences for China’s internal political stability and its ability to wage war.
More important than the lucubration’s of Western analysts are the views held by the Chinese themselves. In 2003, President Hu Jintao acknowledged that China faced a “Malacca dilemma,” alluding to its broad dependence on imports of oil from the Gulf and its inability to defend that vulnerability. Experts on China can give informed explanations for President Hu’s admission. It may be as prosaic as an acknowledgment of an obvious and undeniable fact. More recently, 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….”
It’s intriguing but probably impossible to know what President Hu and professor Hu think of Westerners’ views that China is not vulnerable to coercion from the sea, or, if China might be, such effects would be too slow to have strategic utility in war. As noted, this latter possibility, also expressed by Collins, suggests a difference in planning horizons: US— short and eager; Chinese—long and patient. Adoption of a blockade strategy—widely acknowledged as likely to be slow acting – would indicate that the US is itself patient, steadfast, and willing to stay the course on behalf the goals it seeks in war.
What Kind of War with China?
Hammes and Mirsky underline that the 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, plus the alignment of regional powers in the fight. I offer an alternative view. Because blockade is to operate in a new globalized world where even the great continental powers may be vulnerable to coercion from the sea, blockade is in fact quite robust across essentially all types of war between the US and China. And, as has been noted, useful in the war termination and postwar phases.
It is nonetheless useful to examine several specific scenarios to understand better how BE might work in concert with other uses of the sea power of the US and its allies. What scenarios? As this is written in the fall of 2020, 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.
Taiwan 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 because of the democratic ideals of self-determination that underpin America’s security policy as well as reasons of 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 at or near the status quo ante.
The second issue, China’s territorial claims to extensive areas of the world ocean, 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 (see the Global Blockade vs. Russia post.) However, because of China’s sense of deep historical grievance against the West, public characterization of BE vs. China should be as carefully crafted as possible to minimize the danger that China could claim, to its own people and to regional neighbors, that 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. (This assumes that China would have no reason to invade its Southeast Asian neighbors nor intervene with military forces on the Korean peninsula.) While the US always has, and likely will pursue, the option of seeking to deny Chinese forces such control, BE as it is used here, is a sea denial strategy broadly focused on the world ocean, from China’s most distant trading partners right up to China’s home waters.
Hammes, Mirsky and Collins distinguish between near and far blockade. In a strategic sense the global BE being argued here does not make that distinction, though at the operational and tactical levels it is quite valid. In addition BE would deny China ability to exploit any territorial gains it might achieve and thus subsumes Deterrence through Denial as proposed by Erickson.*****
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. Note, however, that blockade might nonetheless result in war on the ground. (See below under discussions “Cons” and “War Termination.”) 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.
Finally, there would be no NATO-like framework for military and political cooperation with Indo-Pacific friends and 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.
Blockade Enforcement – Pros
- Blockade enforcement would take advantage of China’s immutable geographic disadvantages in accessing the global commons.
- It would reduce the risk that US surface forces face when entering Chinese A2/AD zones by minimizing their exposure in those zones. They would be used for BE in more distant areas while BE nearer China would be executed mainly by SSN and mines. BE would free US surface forces for other tasks as the war’s course demanded.
- Almost as important, in executing BE 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, seized, or sunk. (see the Propulsion Disablers post.) These would be tactical/operational decisions made in light of the broader strategic context. At the theater level, the US would calibrate the intensity of the BE actions 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 the prosecution of BE 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 BE presents. (Indeed, if Chinese planners have already thought these matters through, one might have an explanation for professor Hu’s remarks cited above.) China specialists can offer specific assessments of China’s possible responses. I offer a general one below under the heading War Termination and the Critical Role of Russia.
- BE uses the existing capabilities of the Navy. Upgrades in ISR (see below), improved Special Forces or other capabilities for ship seizure, possibly including reconfigured amphibious ships (not further addressed here) would be needed. Otherwise BE might require relatively little in additional expenditures.
- BE would not be a US-only venture but would be a powerful coalition builder. Not only would US allies, Japan and Korea, contribute, but friendly nations like India, who would not wish China to emerge the victor, are likely to join in. As in times past, contributions by allies would be a great force multiplier, freeing US forces for other missions.
- BE is an asymmetric response that would be difficult for China to answer. It could be used to augment US sea control 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 zones. (I am grateful to Steve Wills for pointing this out. Earlier I have speculated why the Navy’s leadership has not so far found this argument compelling.) China would face a difficult choice: Desist from aggressive military action – or give up all earnings from seaborne exports and expected payoff from vast investments in the BRI and overseas agricultural and manufacturing ventures. These are not only of great economic value. They also express China’s aspirations for influence befitting a global great power.
- As in the Russia case, many of these goals might be sought through economic sanctions alone. But if economic sanctions prove ineffective and war ensues, BE would be implemented. In any case, the underlying threat of BE might magnify the seriousness of security-related economic sanctions and, potentially, increase their efficacy.
In contrast to Russia’s nuclear bellicosity, China, as far as I can tell, 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 BE 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 one or more CVSGs with missiles launched from submarines outside Chinese territorial waters. And, as with Russia, the absence of symmetrical Chinese targets at sea would make the decision regarding a US response extremely difficult—and so in need of intense study.
Blockade and Blockade Enforcement – Cons
- BE 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 and fishing fleets.
- Even if ISR is successfully 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, at least initially.
- 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 BE strategy would dictate serious attention to US countermine capabilities.
- If analysis shows blockade could yield the promise suggested above, US strategic thinking may come to center too much on it and other conflictual dimensions of relations with China and so let cooperative possibilities atrophy. If possible, blockade and its enforcement should be kept in the background of US declaratory policy and US-Chinese military-to-military diplomacy. In short, if you think you have a genuine advantage, underplay it. Speak softly whilst you carry a big stick.
- As in the Russia case, blockade vs. China might become oversold in US national security planning processes—its promise inflated and its risks understated.
- The most dangerous—and today hypothetical—possibility is that the US NCA decides to exploit the threat or implementation of blockade on behalf of interests that are purely, or mainly, economic in nature. Disentangling security from economic interests in the US relationship with China could well become even more problematical than is already the case.
War Termination and the Critical Role of Russia
War Termination is a phase of planning that we do not give the attention that it demands. We should not conceive of war strategies, much less go into war, without having thought through how it might end. Given that the warring parties possess nuclear arsenals, unconditional surrender is a highly unlikely and highly dangerous objective. Considerable thought needs to be devoted to choosing and articulating war termination plans. No strategy is complete without them.
China’s internal measures to minimize blockade’s effects on its economy might be successful enough to prolong China’s war effort beyond the period of time the US and its allies wished to continue the fight. (External support, mainly from Russia is taken up in a separate section below.) In the case of Taiwan, I believe that for the US that period might be quite prolonged. In addition, regardless of the war’s specific issues, if the US should suffer significant losses, say several carrier strike groups, powerful momentum is likely to arise within the US domestic political system to fight on as long as it takes to avenge and justify such losses. (Similar sentiments for identical reasons would be likely to arise within China.)
Thus, planning must encompass a long war during which global blockade of China is likely to have growing effects on China’s behavior. If so, 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 gauge the desirability of a blockade strategy. The range of uncertainty can probably be narrowed considerably. China specialists will need deep liaison with corresponding specialists on Russia.
The China-Russia relationship is likely the critical variable in the war termination equation vs. China. (Note that this is probably true whether the war termination question arises as a result of blockade or any other US actions versus China—though blockade is the most vulnerable to Russian counteraction.) Mirsky terms Russia the “swing state” in this regard, the state whose actions can determine the success or failure of a US blockade.
The US-China-Russia triangle may well be the cosmic issue confronting geo-strategists in the first half of this century, if not beyond. It wilI doubtless take many unforeseen turns as the years unfold. I confine my comments on this overarching matter to how that interaction seems likely to play out in the particular case of a US blockade in a war with China today.
As a result of classic balance of power reasoning, Russia would be highly likely to come to China’s aid to forestall its defeat at the hands of the US. A war between the US and China would be a strategic gift to Russia that would surpass even the gift given to Iran by the US invasion of Iraq. It would put Russia in the “catbird’s seat” (to continue with folksy idiom). Russia’s own interests would be advanced by prolonging a US-China war which obviously would sap the strength of both warring parties. Russia might in effect determine the length of the conflict. By metering its material support for China, it would seek to ensure that the war has no victor.
Russia’s leaders almost certainly recognize that a US-China war would present it with a difficult balancing act. If America emerged the victor, Russia would find itself facing alone an unrivaled and likely emboldened superpower. On the other hand, if China gained the upper hand, it might find might find itself once again in vassalage to its far more powerful Chinese neighbor—just as it was for three-four centuries to their Mongol predecessors in medieval times.
Regardless of the final outcome, immediately, Russia would likely profit handsomely from selling China fuel and foodstuffs, both of which it has in abundance. Russia and the former Soviet states would be a market for Chinese exports. In return, Russia might well demand that China provide it high tech weapons and similar products with military potential.
Movement of goods in both directions has been eased considerably over the last decades. Through the BRI, China is steadily improving the network of transport connections—road, rail, internal cargo ports like Khorgos, pipeline, and electrical power grid—that connect it with Russia. (The Power of Siberia pipeline opened October 2019 is a telling example.) Finally, It cannot be ruled out that, while the US is preoccupied with China, Russia might move aggressively in its own sphere.
Russia’s support could possibly prop up China’s economy for a lengthy period. The importance of the Russia-China dynamic dictates that policy statements, propaganda, 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 move toward 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-eighth that of China’s) is being drawn, perhaps reluctantly, into China’s economic and technological orbit. That either nation might go war with the US and its allies seems certain to accelerate this trend.
Beyond economic and political support to China, it is conceivable that Russia might help China through covert military action, especially undersea operations, including mine warfare, in the Pacific. Guarding against such possibilities would, at a minimum, absorb US forces. Planning for BE vs China would need to take account of Russia’s possible military role. The US should frame US declaratory policy toward Russia and draw the boundaries of exclusion zones accordingly.
Other states like North Korea and Iran might seek to take advantage of a US-China war to advance toward their own security goals. Such actions would increase stress on US forces and indirectly aid China. The obvious focus of blockade against China would be China itself. However, war between great powers can have 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 Fleet-in-Being post) and other conservative principles. (Earlier, we’ve looked at the payoff that would come from possessing the ability to continue to enforce blockade during the war termination and postwar phases. As I have noted elsewhere, pyrrhic victory would mean ignominy for the victor.)
China’s Unilateral Options
Beyond benefiting from Russia’s support and in contrast to Russia itself, China possesses the capability to respond to blockade with military measures at the conventional level on its own and would have strong reasons to do so. These are rooted in China’s historical grievances against the West which play such an important role in growing nationalist sentiment in China’s population at large, sentiment that is stoked and exploited by the regime. The regime does so as a matter of calculated self interest, but that does not mean that it may not eventually become the captive of its own propaganda.
US planning must take account of the potency of Chinese nationalism. For example, US strikes on Chinese territory seem certain to generate popular support for the regime, perhaps more than enough to compensate for any loss of support that the hardships that blockade itself might impose. I am not commenting on the military need of such strikes, but intuitively, that need would have to be imperative in view of the highly negative political consequences that US strikes would have on the Chinese body politic. Here too is a question that China specialists must address in the context of BE and several other possible strategic uses of the Navy including Air-Sea Battle and anti-A2/AD.
Similarly, the regime would likely view as a threat to its hold on power any moves that might be seen as capitulation to the US. Rational Chinese strategists, as well as more passionate Chinese nationalists, might fear that accepting defeat at the hands of blockade would turn China into a maritime vassal of a US-led alliance—meaning that it might then be able to use the sea but only on restricted terms that the US would enforce.
China does have other options. 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 (if it had not already done so) and underwrite a North Korean invasion of the South. (This assumes the Kim regime had not already mounted one.)
China could 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 a big step in the redrawing of the geopolitical map. Despite its huge investments in industries that depend on use of the sea, it is conceivable that, with or without Taiwan in its orbit, China would turn its back on the global ocean. It might turn its immediate Southeast Asian neighbors into subordinate states and, with its junior partner Russia, dominate MacKinder’s Eurasian “World Island.” The US would find itself leading the many fractious states of the “Rimlands,” and dominating the oceans that connect it with them. In this speculative scenario the fabled Chinese long view of history would lead China to plan to marshal the resources of the world island and in due course turn back toward the sea to reclaim Taiwan and China’s rightful place at the top of the international order.
Regardless of whether such tectonic change lies in the future, US plans have to made today. If they are to include blockade and its enforcement against China, they would have to be deeply Joint, starting at the strategic level. BE at sea means reinforcement ashore in Korea, where the Kim regime has almost certainly foreseen the opportunities that a US-China war would present. Delayed and urgent dispatch of US reinforcements to the peninsula might well “justify” and trigger an aggressive move south by Pyongyang. BE demands that identical thinking be devoted to stiffening the defense of Taiwan.
Blockade plans would have to made in close coordination with other departments of the Executive Branch—State, Treasury, Commerce, etc.—and with formal allies and partners. The consequences of BE for friends and neutrals would need to be taken into account. Dealing with potentially hostile “blockade busters,” like Myanmar, would also require careful thought. Nations like India who would not wish to see China victorious might contribute significantly to policing blockade in ocean areas of interest.
I will assume that such coordinated planning of this nature can be effected because without it blockade would be unlikely to realize its full potential.
If proper plans can be made, blockade supported by BE would operate at the level of national strategy, would be robustly applicable across all plausible scenarios, and might be implemented at relatively low risk and with existing forces, at possibly low economic costs. It is not an alternative but a complement to anti-A2/AD, if the latter is pursued. BE-type actions will inevitably arise in any war lasting more than a few weeks. In any case, at this time, blockade would be difficult for China to answer. Blockade and BE would also face a daunting roster of cons.
The Navy has historically ignored blockade. The recent official recognition of blockade as a strategic task may mean this attitude has changed. That remains to be seen. If the Navy fails to take account of the changes brought by globalization, it may well ignore blockade today. That would be an indefensible mistake.
The promise of blockade should be carefully assessed—should we do it? The operational feasibility of BE should be similarly scrutinized—can we do it and also do the other things we want to do? Then we need officially sanctioned studies and games done by teams of people who combine expertise in naval operations, international economics, and deep knowledge of Chinese (and Russian) national security policy.
If blockade is deemed likely to produce success vs. China in the future, it should be incorporated into the national strategy, and blockade enforcement made a part of a 21st century Maritime Strategy—slowly, deliberately, with minimal fanfare.
*Sean Mirski, “Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 36, no. 3 (February 2013), available at carnegieendowmentorg/; T X Hammes, “Off-shore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” Strategic Forum, no. 278 (June 2012), available at wwwdticmil/; Gabriel B. Collins and William S. Murray, “No Oil for the Lamps of China?,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 61, no 2 (Spring 2008), available at wwwusnwcedu/; Gabriel B. Collins, “A Maritime Oil Blockade – Tactically Tempting But Strategically Flawed,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Spring, 2018); Lieutenant Matthew Conners, US Navy, “Blockade the First Island Chain” Proceedings, Vol. 145/6/1,396 (June 2019); Victor Vescovo “Deterring the Dragon …From (Under) the Sea,” Proceedings,Vol. 140 (February 2014); Erik Sand, “Desperate Measures: The Effects of Economic Isolation on Warring Powers,” Texas National Security Review, Vol. 3 Issue 2 (Spring, 2020).
**Sam J. Tangredi, “Running Silent and Algorithmic: The U.S. Navy Strategic Vision in 2019,” Naval War College Review, Vol .72, No. 2 (2019).
***How We Fight: Handbook for the Naval Warfighter, No author. Foreword by Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, USN, Chief of Naval Operations. Publisher: US Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, 2015. Available for purchase from GPO, US Government Book Store.
****Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (4th ed.) (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 245.
*****Andrew Erickson, “China’s Naval Modernization: Implications and Recommendations,” Dec. 11, 2013, https://www.andrewerickson.com/2013/12/chinas-naval-modernization-implications-and-recommendations/
Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, October 4, 2020