Advantage at Sea (AS) is a combined statement released on December 17, 2020 and signed by the CNO, Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard Commandant. Mainly focused on capabilities and operational concepts, it provides the most recent articulation of the strategic intentions of what is now designated the “Naval Service.”
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, joined by its allies, should employ a sea-based strategy of military-economic warfare against China.
Its immediate aims would be to attack the adversary’s economy and defend those of the US, its allies, and important neutrals.
To achieve these goals the strategy would 1) through military action prevent China from using the world ocean for any purpose (designated “blockade);” and 2) mobilize all the civil instruments of the power of the US and its allies (diplomatic, commercial, financial, communications) to attack China’s war economy and political cohesion.
Its ultimate aim would be to reduce close to zero China’s ability and willingness to wage war.
Blockade is not an alternative or substitute for other uses of the forces of the Navy and Marine Corps. It is a complement, employed on a global scale, in a war with China (and/or in wars in other regions the US national defense strategy is framed to defend).
For the Navy/USMC, 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 would underpin US war termination strategies as long as the US can enforce it.
Blockade takes advantage of China’s geographic disadvantages in accessing the world ocean and requires that planning encompass military exploitation of island and other land choke points as well as operations at sea.
The Navy/USMC should assess 1) the likely effects on China’s behavior of a strategy of sea-based military-economic warfare; 2) the operational feasibility of blockade—specifically to deprive China any use of the world ocean—and 3) the coordination of naval blockade with the civil components of national power.
If a sea-based strategy of military-economic warfare is judged likely to contribute to deterring war with China or producing an acceptable outcome in war, it should 1) be incorporated into the National Defense Strategy; and 2) naval blockade in a war vs. China (and/or other adversaries) should be quietly, deliberately incorporated into a 21st-century Maritime Strategy.
No authoritative estimates of the effect of military-economic warfare vs. China exist in the public domain. Assessments of the desirability of blockade cannot usefully go forward without them.
This post assesses the potential of naval blockade as the principal component of a US national strategy of military-economic warfare in a war with China. Such a war is entirely hypothetical. We are obliged to think about it even though its consequences would be calamitous, and the US should do everything in its power to avoid it. I strongly endorse this point, as does every other analyst who has commented in the public domain.
Let’s first define terms, look at the place of blockade among other strategic tasks, and then examine its characteristics in the twenty-first century.
Blockade in a National Strategy of Military-Economic Warfare
Globalization has made China, a great continental power, dependent on the use of the sea. China is thus vulnerable to coercion from the sea. In a war with China, the US, with the help of its allies and friends, should wage a sea-based military-economic campaign against China. This would be a national strategy, employing all elements of national power. Its leading military component would be primarily naval because the main military action would be enforcing a global maritime blockade of China. 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. A larger aim would be to reduce close to zero China’s ability and willingness to wage war. The ultimate objective would be to exploit the resulting coercive effects in negotiations for war termination.
Military-economic warfare requires that naval blockade and the non-naval, civil aspects be assessed in tandem. The civil elements are primarily economic in nature – commerce, finance, communications, global manufacturing and global agriculture/fisheries. Their exploitation aims at 1) crippling the adversary’s economy (some see possible disruption of the adversary’s social order and political cohesion); while 2) defending that of the US and its allies and 3) minimizing negative effects on the world economy, especially on important neutral states. Diplomatic-information actions are of equal weight. Their aim is to inhibit blockade-busting states, cement and enlarge the pro-US coalition of allies and friends, and maintain popular support, both at home and abroad, for blockade and other war efforts.
The experience of Britain before and in the initial months of the First World War showed that blockading a great continental power has costly domestic and international consequences that may be mitigated but not avoided entirely. Blockade in the twenty-first century is unlikely to produce desired results without a simultaneous, effective civil counterpart. If getting the civil components right is not a decisive determinant, it is likely a sine qua non for the success of a strategy of military-economic coercion.
The remarkable parallels between America’s position vis-à-vis China today with that of Britain vs. Germany 120 years ago makes highly relevant the story of the Royal Navy’s foray into a distinctly non-naval, civil realm of national planning. Nicholas A. Lambert (Planning Armageddon – British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2012) shows how in the decades before the First World War Britain’s navy 1) analyzed and understood that the nation’s ability to exploit its international commercial and financial dominance to attack Germany’s economy and protect that of Britain would be necessary complements to the military enforcement of blockade; and 2) initiated national planning to produce such effects.
Unfortunately, the costs to Britain, to its allies, and especially to neutrals like the United States, of implementing these plans meant that, when war came, they were fairly quickly modified or abandoned entirely. This sharply reduced the coercive effects of blockade on Germany. The implications of this striking historical precedent for US planning today are taken up below. (I’m indebted to John Rodgaard for pointing out the relevance of Lambert, and to Lambert himself, to whom this new posting is much indebted. More recently Lambert has extrapolated from his historical work to provide commentary on the possible role of cyberspace in a strategy of military-economic warfare today. See his “Brits-Krieg: The Strategy of Economic Warfare,” George Perkovich and Ariel E. Levite, eds., Understanding Cyber Conflict: Fourteen Analogies (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017).)
Blockade is Robust but not Singular
It is imperative to recognize that blockade is not an alternative to other forms of military action at sea. In a big war between the two great powers many of blockade’s effects would unavoidably arise from the nature of the strategic relationship between the US and China. Would the US be the first great seapower 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?
Blockade would for the Navy and Marine Corps operate at the level of Huntington’s “strategic concept.” This can be 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. In addition to its utility in support of peacetime diplomacy, in prewar crisis and in war itself, it provides important strategic options 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 be moving toward an indecisive outcome.
Blockade exploits China’s geographic disadvantages. 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 blockaders may focus their efforts – both with the Navy’s forces at sea and the Marine Corps’ land/amphibious power. (See the advocacy and critique of the latter in Dustin League and Dan Justice, “Sink ‘Em All: Envisioning Marine Corps Maritime Interdiction,” CIMSEC June 8, 2020.) 8, 2020.)
Characteristics of Blockade in the Twenty-first Century
(These descriptions lie at the level of strategic concept – the broad employment of all forces and means. Operations, tactics, platforms, weapons, CSIR, logistics, etc., are the province of warfighters.)
There should be no limits on the geographic scope and nature of blockade enforcement actions. The US and its allies would employ an exhaustive mix of military and civil action. All Chinese seaborne trade as well as all oceanic air traffic would be interdicted. Maritime states whose geography might permit them to help China circumvent such interdictions would become targets of US diplomacy and, if necessary military action, including 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 on indigenous means to compete for technological superiority.
Blockade would utilize advanced technologies and make maximum use of propulsion disablers (see the Propulsion Disablers post). Requirements for board and search would be minimized. No Chinese ship would be allowed to sail. If a library of sonic signatures of China’s naval and civil ships of all types can be collected over time in peace, it would probably allow differentiation with reasonable confidence of enemy ships from those of third parties in war. The latter would be put on notice that if they enter US exclusion zones, they too would be subject to PD attack.
Blockade would present China with the twin problems of loss of the cargoes of interdicted ships and of retrieval of disabled ships and their crews. The US and allies would seize disabled ships to be towed to safe harbor. Non-Chinese nationals among their crews would be returned to their home countries and cargoes belonging to third parties would be returned to their rightful owners—as much as seized ships’ documentation would allow. Given the size and dispersal of China’s merchant and ocean-going fishing fleets, and the large number of third-party ships involved in trade with China, this would be a resource-challenging task, particularly in the initial period.
Blockade in Navy Thinking
(Readers whose interest is mainly in the strategic assessment of blockade are invited to fast-forward over this section to Military Assumptions below.)
In April, 2020, CNO Admiral Michael 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 deeply this unprecedented pronouncement may affect Navy planning. Though the Navy is a famously hierarchical institution, it sometimes speaks with several voices about its strategic intentions.
Will “blockade” will be revived out of ancient history and take on a new meaning in the 21st century. Advantage at Sea (17 Dec 2020) “Advantage at Sea” (AS) https://www.navy.mil/Press-Office/Press-Releases/display-pressreleases/Article/2449829/navy-marine-corps-and-coast-guard-release-maritime-strategy suggests the answer is No, or at least Not Yet. (AS is a combined statement, signed by the CNO, Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard Commandant. It provides the most recent articulation of the strategic intentions of what is now designated the “Naval Service.”)
My first work in the strategy business involved applying basic, long-established content analysis techniques to the Soviet military press to drawn conclusions about the Soviets’ true strategic beliefs and intentions. My colleagues and I at CNA enjoyed some success. I’m using the same techniques here to try to understand what AS really means. Prominence and frequency of mention are almost always reliable indications of the writer(s)’ priorities. “Sea control” is AS’s most frequently used term dealing with strategic objectives. “Sea control” carries a lot of weight from the start. It appears twice in the one-page “Foreword,” signed by the three Service chiefs. Between “sea control” and “sea denial,” “control” is by a large margin the preferred goal (the term appears six times in the two pages (pp. 13-14) devoted to wartime force employment). To underline the point, the Glossary (p.27) defines “Sea denial” as what can be achieved with “a force that may be insufficient to ensure the use of the sea by one’s own forces [repeating the phrase just used to define “Sea control”.]
There is nothing wrong with setting as your strategic goal a plan to achieve sea control and to acquire a force with the needed capabilities. But it must surely be wrong to ignore what might be a lesser, but still strategically meaningful goal. AS provides a case where (as Gorshkov is often quoted as saying) the best is the enemy of the good. Exploiting capabilities for sea denial—specifically through naval blockade in a strategy of military-economic warfare—could yield genuine strategic payoff. But AS does not address it because sea control is its be all, end all.
The AS document focuses on naval/military capabilities and operations, understandably in view of its objective. Its attention to the larger purposes those operations might serve is generally stated; e.g., “to deny enemy objectives, destroy enemy forces, and compel war termination”; or “to project power in support of Joint Force efforts.” (P. 13-14) But it does mention (once) that action at sea might “impose … economic costs on our adversaries” (p.13, emphasis added), but only as one of several organic consequences arising from fighting at sea, not as an objective sought.
Overall conclusion about AS: “Sea control” is the goal. “Sea denial” is an also-ran. Plans to exploit it—as does blockade—seem unlikely to be gain much traction soon.
This conclusion is supported by the Navy’s earlier behavior. As far as can be seen from the public record, Navy planners are not doing the ground work necessary to evaluate blockade as a strategic option. To date, public descriptions of the China (and Russia) research programs at analytical organizations that support the Navy, like CNA and the Naval War College, indicate they are not addressing the likely effects on China of a US campaign of military-economic coercion. Presumably that is because the Navy has not asked them to do so, or, independently, they have concluded that such research would find no interested audience.
Given the many decades right up to today 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.
Prior to the promulgation of NDP-1, blockade had never had official standing. (In contrast, blockade’s desirability and feasibility have been the subject of lively public discussion. The work of Collins, Hammes, Mirsky, Vescovo, Sand, and Suarez* will be cited here.) Blockade had never been mentioned in the Navy’s official statements of its strategic purposes in war versus China—or anyone else. At the Joint level, blockade did not appear as an entry in the June 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. The possibly decisive role in war of attacking the enemy’s commerce was an important theme addressed by Mahan (see next).
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 well-known but still 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 the 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?
Explanations by outsiders regarding why blockade has been officially ignored necessarily have a speculative tone. Many seem plausible. Let’s look at six, 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 blockade would lack the complementary civil dimensions that are likely crucial to success. Thus it would be be far less effective, and much more subject to undesirable side effects, than one that had been planned in advance. If you are going to end up doing blockade, even if that hadn’t been your main intention, you would want to organize all your resources to do it to best effect.
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. 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 Lance Davis and Stanley Engerman, Naval Blockades in War and Peace: An Economic History since 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Bruce Elleman and S.C.M. Paine (eds), Naval Blockades and Seapower: Strategies and Counter-Strategies, 1805-2005 (London: Routledge 2006). 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.” Blockade 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 is not viewed as 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. (This obviously would not be the case should the national strategy encompass sea-based military-economic warfare.)
The Collins’ articles point to a problem that is rarely acknowledged. Within the bureaucratic structure of Navy planning lies the inherent possibility that plans for 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.
But the force procurement future should not dictate the force employment present. To the degree there may be a current-versus-future dilemma, I respectfully suggest that the leadership’s first obligation should be to best use the existing Navy that the nation has provided and its predecessors have shaped. 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 blockade—not to attack your adversary’s long standing, enduring and possibly decisive vulnerability. (At the same time planning the acquisition of future forces must be pursued. It is naval strategy of perhaps an even more demanding sort, as Till argues in the final chapter 14, “Generating Maritime Power,” added to his 4th edition, 2018.)
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. 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 blockade has been given short shrift.
Fifth, as currently articulated, the national strategy is at best neutral in addressing the strategic uses of sea. In fact, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) of 2018 (only a summary is publicly available) is based on land warfare-centric language. (This point has been made by Tangredi.) It is devoid of structure or terminology to permit consideration of the use of seapower to affect the course and possibly the outcome of a major war—which is exactly what blockade in support of military-economic warfare would aim to accomplish. It may be that an unreceptive National Defense Strategy has inhibited Navy thinking at levels of broad strategy like blockade in the past – and possibly today.
Today, it is not at all clear that blockade would find a receptive hearing in the Joint arena and beyond. It will be necessary to reconfigure the NDS to encompass the expression of seapower’s strategic utility. But for one of the Services to effect a change in the NDS has in turn been made more difficult by the passage in 1986 of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The Act had the effect of shifting responsibility for strategic planning upward to the national level and reducing the influence of the Services in shaping it. (I’m indebted to Steve Wills for this point which he addresses in Steven T. Wills, Strategy Shelved, the Collapse of Naval Cold War Strategic Planning (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, forthcoming).)
Facing an uphill fight, the Navy/Marine Corps would need a well thought out plan to affect the strategy. They would first have to be completely convinced of the desirability of military-economic warfare as a strategic concept and of the feasibility of enforcing a global blockade. (Obviously, credible authoritative assessments of the vulnerability (or not) of China (and Russia) to military-economic warfare would also be a sine qua non.)
Because blockade would be an component of a broader national strategy, it would be deeply affected by the actions of the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce (and specialized entities like the Office of US Trade Representative and the Inter-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS)). In the current NDS, the Department of Defense describes itself as providing support to these other parts of the Executive Branch. This is a welcome perspective. But in the case of blockade it’s just as much the other way around. Military blockade needs to be supported by a strong civil counterpart. Here, the Navy/USMC should take the initiative to cultivate deep liaison and coordinate inter-agency plans.
Military-economic warfare, supported by naval blockade, would more likely be encompassed in a future US national strategy if it is seen as endorsed by allies and friends and accepted by neutrals. Indeed, many lines of US financial and commercial action require parallel actions by allies. Responsibility for coordination in these civil fields lies elsewhere in the Executive Branch. For blockade, per se, military-to-military (mainly, navy-to-navy) diplomacy would take the lead.
Sixth and finally, how to best use the total force for blockade is problematic. Blockade would put heavy demands on the already overstretched submarine and SEAL forces. At the same time the roles that the carriers and amphibious forces might play have been questioned by some. But this is not an issue unique to blockade. It is one that Navy and Marine Corps planners are wrestling with today in all big war scenarios.
In the case of blockade, in fact, the roles of these major forces seem clear. The ability of the Marine Corps to control the land at critical choke points would be a source of considerable leverage in enforcing blockade. And US carriers would provide the key capabilities needed to sweep the seas of enemy civil ships of all types as well as any naval forces that might try to protect them. (These observations apply to existing forces. If blockade should become part of a national strategy, its implications for forces needed in the future would obviously arise. Such needs would not likely be small—that is, blockade could become a “force builder,” though perhaps not for a force whose shape today’s leadership would prefer.)
Obviously, a war with China could occasion a host of third-party threats to allies of the US. Assuming the surface Navy is able to operate in waters relatively near China (and Russia), 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.
A reasonable assumption for US war planners is that a war with China would be a world war—either from the start, or likely becoming so if combat becomes prolonged. US carriers and amphibious forces provide exactly the capabilities needed to deter hostile actions by other parties or respond to them.
It is assumed that the US and its allies possess global naval dominance—meaning the capability to deny any other nation the use of the world ocean. 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 current US building programs are implemented and the military budgets of allies in Europe and the Pacific increase. (This says nothing about longer term force requirements.)
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 interdict 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.
(Before addressing this topic I must observe that all existing treatments of “blockade”—including this one—are heavy on intuitive logic but woefully short on fact and data. Serious assessment cannot go forward without searching, expert analyses of the likely effects on China and China’s probable reactions to a campaign of sea-based military-economic coercion. Only slightly less important would be assessments of how such a global campaign against China would affect the world economy. In particular we need estimates of how neutral nations, especially in the regions given priority in the NDS, might react. China would almost certainly deploy its substantial financial-commercial clout to entice/coerce neutral nations to oppose the US, if not actively join the Chinese side.)
Blockade would likely have direct and far-reaching consequences for China. The nation 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, or 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.
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 describes itself as 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 all of China’s needs for unfettered use of the sea.
Regarding China’s vulnerability, more important than the lucubration’s of Western analysts are the views expressed 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….” (Mr. Hu is Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Studies and Research Professor at the Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University and more recently director, South China Sea Strategic Probing Initiative.)
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 blockade—widely believed (without thorough, authoritative analysis) 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—most likely the restoration of the status quo ante.
How Would China’s Navy React to Blockade?
Before moving on to the nature of a possible war with China and proposed actions that the US might take against it, we have to look at a highly pertinent question: What effect would US adoption of blockade have on China’s naval building plans?
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 it regards as sufficient for that purpose. It may be 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 Imperial Japan which in the 1930s and 1940’s challenged America’s. (Michael McDevitt (Radm, USN, ret.) “China’s Far Seas’ 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 would likely trigger 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 years to achieve something approaching parity with the US, it is hardly 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, even if the US should formally eschew blockade, the situation would not necessarily change for the better. China’s planners, following the universal dictate that their first obligation is to defend the nation’s vulnerabilities—independent of any specific threat that may arise—will likely build a great navy for that purpose. (Here we find yet another reason 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).
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, 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, of great utility in the war termination and postwar phases.
It is nonetheless useful to examine several specific scenarios to understand better how blockade might work in concert with other uses of the seapower 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.
Perhaps the most difficult for the US to deal with would be a Chinese blockade of Taiwan undertaken to bring a breakaway province back and restore the nation’s integrity. (The parallels with the Union blockade of the Confederacy—and the role of outside powers regarding it—are striking.) In principle, even in this case, the US could mount a (counter-)blockade against China. The obvious problem is that international and indeed domestic political support for US military action against China would be weaker and the well-being of the Taiwanese people would be at stake.
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 have the same general shape as those against Russia (see the Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. Russia post.) However, because of China’s sense of deep 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, 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. While the US always has, and likely would pursue, the option of seeking to deny Chinese forces such control, blockade, as it is used here, is a sea denial strategy focused broadly 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. Global blockade being addressed here, at the strategic level, and does not make that distinction, though at the operational and tactical levels it is quite valid. In addition, blockade 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 if the US chooses to deploy “tripwire” forces on Taiwanese soil. In any case, blockade in defense of Taiwan might nonetheless result in war on the ground elsewhere. (See below under discussions of “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 – Pros
- Blockade would take advantage of China’s immutable geographic disadvantages in accessing the global commons.
- It would minimize exposure of US surface forces when entering Chinese A2/AD zones. Surface forces would be used for blockade in more distant areas while action nearer China would be executed mainly by SSNs and mines.
- In executing blockade 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. These would be tactical/operational decisions made in light of the broader strategic context. There would be little reason for urgency arising from the prosecution of blockade itself.
- Blockade uses the existing capabilities of the Navy. Upgrades in ISR (see below), improved Special Forces or other capabilities for ship seizure would be needed. Otherwise blockade might require relatively little in immediate additional expenditures.
- Blockade would be a powerful coalition builder. US allies, Japan and Korea, would likely contribute, and friendly nations like India might well join in. As in times past, contributions by allies would be a great force multiplier, freeing US forces for other missions.
- Blockade is an asymmetric response that would be difficult for China to answer, forcing it to face a difficult choice: Desist from aggressive military action or incur vast immediate economic costs and forgo longer term payoff from major overseas investments befitting a global great power.
- As in the Russia case, many of these goals might be sought through economic sanctions alone. But a shooting-war would mean that economic sanctions had proved ineffective. In any case, the underlying threat of blockade might magnify the seriousness of security-related economic sanctions and, potentially, increase their efficacy.
Blockade – Cons
- Blockade may be judged too difficult to carry out. US ISR may not be up to the task of locating and identifying the myriad ships in the Chinese merchant and fishing fleets.
- 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.
- As in case of Russia, the civil dimensions of a strategy of military-economic warfare may lie beyond the capacity of the US and its allies to control; negative international and domestic consequences may combine to render naval blockade nugatory, as they did for Britain in the first World War. This topic is in earnest need of expert assessment.
- If analysis shows military-economic warfare, underwritten by naval blockade, could yield the promise suggested here, 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 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 actual implementation of blockade on behalf of interests that are mainly economic in nature. Disentangling security from economic interests in the US relationship with China would become even more problematical than it is already. Whatever the case, China can be sure to label blockade a “gangster” strategy.
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 defending 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 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 likely 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? As noted, the answer must come from China specialists in close consultation with specialists in Russian affairs.
The Role of 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. However, blockade is the most vulnerable to Russian counteraction. Mirsky terms Russia the “swing state” in this regard, the state whose actions can determine blockade’s success or failure.
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 will doubtless take many unforeseen turns as the years unfold. These comments on this overarching matter are confined 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. 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 would recognize that a US-China war presents 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 several centuries to their Mongol predecessors in medieval times.
Regardless of how it attempts shape the war’s final outcome, immediately Russia would likely seek handsome profit from selling China fuel and foodstuffs, both of which it has in abundance. Russia and other 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, cable, 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 seems certain to accelerate this trend toward its logical conclusion.
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 absorb US forces. 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. Pyrrhic victory would mean ignominy for the victor.
China’s Unilateral Options
China possesses the capability to respond to blockade with military measures at the conventional level on its own. It would have strong reasons to do so. These are rooted in China’s historical grievances against the West. They play 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 which the hardships that blockade itself might generate. I am not commenting on the military need of such strikes, but intuitively, that need would have to be imperative in view of the 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 blockade and other possible strategic uses of the Navy, including 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.
Responding to Blockade
China does have other options. With respect to blockade enforcement per se, China might choose a counter-campaign: a war of attrition at sea. China might withhold the high-value units of its civil fleets, accept attrition to the large numbers of remaining, less valuable units, and hope to inflict unacceptable losses on the attackers. It might bank on its US opponent’s impatience and unwillingness to accept losses of its own.
Beyond this, China make take radical measures These 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. Faced with the continuing ability of the US to deny it use of the world ocean, China might choose to ignore the blockade and take a historic 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 might basically turn its back on the global ocean. It might coerce its immediate Southeast Asian neighbors to become submissive 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 again toward the sea to reclaim China’s rightful place at the top of the international order.
Whether such tectonic changes may or may not lie in an unforeseeable future, US strategy must be shaped to deal with China in the world of today. If it is to include military-economic warfare, enforced by naval blockade, plans for its implementation must be made in close inter-agency coordination between Defense and other Executive Departments—State, Treasury, Commerce, etc. Like the Royal Navy before World War I, the US Navy should take the initiative (as far as it is able) in mobilizing the nation’s civil components to make military blockade and the strategy it supports a success.
Similarly, the military and political success of blockade will depend on the actions of allies, friends and neutrals. Effective military and non-military diplomacy will be crucial. Dealing with potentially hostile “blockade busters,” like Myanmar, will require careful thought. Nations like India who would not wish to see China victorious might contribute significantly to policing blockade in ocean areas under their sway. The interests of Japan and Korea, today major trading partners with China, must be taken seriously into account.
Blockade, in support of a national strategy of military-economic coercion, would operate at a national, Huntingtonian, level. It would be robust across all plausible scenarios. Its reach would extend to the war termination and postwar phases. It might be implemented at relatively low risk, at likely low economic costs, and with existing forces – and it would provide powerful arguments for more numerous, more effective naval forces in the future. It is not an alternative but a complement to anti-A2/AD, if the latter is pursued. At this time, blockade would be difficult for China to answer.
Blockade would also face a daunting roster of cons, and the Navy has historically ignored it. Official recognition of blockade as a strategic task (April 2020) may mean change is afoot. That remains to be seen. The recently published document Advantage at Sea (December 2020) indicates traditional Navy attitudes toward blockade prevail. If the Navy fails to take account of the changes brought by globalization, it may well continue to ignore blockade. It is respectfully suggested that would be a great mistake.
Further assessment of a strategy of military-economic warfare cannot go forward without expert analyses of its likely effects on China (and, almost as important, on the rest of the world, including the US itself.) For reasons that seem difficult to explain, these assessments have heretofore been lacking. The strategic promise of the strategy should be carefully estimated—should we do it? The operational feasibility of blockade should be similarly scrutinized—can we do it – and also do the other things we may want to do?
If military-economic warfare is judged likely to produce success vs. China, it should be incorporated into the National Security and the National Defense Strategies, and blockade made a part of a 21st century Maritime Strategy—slowly, deliberately, without fanfare.
Note: Many of the ideas expressed in this post will also appear in Bradford Dismukes, “US Naval Relations with Russia and China during the Vietnam War: What the U.S. did Then and Should do Now,” a chapter in a forthcoming edited book from the proceedings of a conference entitled The Naval War in Vietnam: Vietnamese and American Perspectives Conference, 6-7 February 2020, at the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. The publisher will be the Naval War College Press
*Sean Mirsky, “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), 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); Matthew Suarez, “Going to War with China? Ignore Corbett. Dust Off Mahan!,” Proceedings, Vol. 146/12/1,414 (December 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.
****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
Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, January 11, 2021