Note: This post has been rethought, revised, and given a new title, Global Embargo vs. China.
Embargo is embedded in the strategic relationship between the US and China. If there should be war, there will be embargo. It is not an alternative to other force employment strategies. If adopted as a strategy, embargo is robust across all scenarios because it arises as a fundamental response to the unprecedented changes in geopolitics wrought by globalization. Embargo could change Navy thinking at the level of Huntington’s “strategic concept.” Economic globalization is the source of China’s economic success and promise for its future. Globalization rests on unfettered ocean-borne commerce.
China has become vulnerable to strategic coercion from the sea. Embargo would deny it use of the world ocean for any purpose, military or civil, on a global scale. If implemented against China, it would reverse the effects of globalization. The Navy should assess embargo’s strategic promise and operational feasibility. It should not be ignored and left to analysts in the public domain. If embargo is found infeasible or easily thwarted, it should stay what it is today, an unsought byproduct of anti-A2/AD actions, whose feasibility are themselves subject to uncertainty. If embargo is judged likely to contribute toward deterring war and/or producing an acceptable outcome in war, embargo vs. China should be quietly, deliberately incorporated into a 21st-century Maritime Strategy.
To assess the potential of the historic practice of naval embargo 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. Nonetheless, human stupidity may someday prevail. So we have to contemplate and even plan for the possibility.
Such planning must recognize the “security dilemma”: that everything the US may say and do that is meant to deter China from going to war against us or our allies may trigger reactions from China that make war more likely, not less. Though no embargo strategy would be complete without analysis of the security dilemma and its arms control implications, they must be addressed in a future post.
Geoffrey Till has described economic BLOCKADE, as “sea-based coercion,” or “more a form of naval diplomacy than acts of war.”* That is true if one restricts attention to post-World War II cases, all of which involved a great power versus a lesser one, or construes “acts of war” to mean naval ships sinking naval ships or attacking the land. But if naval “war,” more generally, is using the sea to force an adversary to do what you want, then embargo—preventing goods and people from entering or leaving a place—surely meets that definition. In a war between great powers it has a telling historical precedent: The German submarine embargo of the British isles came close to forcing Britain out of World War I. In 1916-17, it was obviously not “naval diplomacy.” Nor in World War II when Britain faced a similar problem. (In WWII Japan faced an identical problem as a result of the US submarine campaign against its imports and mining of its coastal waters.) Embargo is the maritime variant of siege warfare on land. You don’t always have to attack a fortress to force it to capitulate. In sum, embargo should be considered as a genuine form of naval warfare.
Because of globalization, a great continental power like China is now dependent on use of the sea and that dependency makes it vulnerable to coercion from the sea. Providing the means for such coercion through embargo should be considered a new “strategic concept” for the Navy: in Samuel Huntington’s timeless words, “the how, when, and where the [Navy] expects to protect the nation from some threat to its security.”
It is imperative to recognize that embargo is not an alternative to other forms of military action at sea. Nonetheless it is often seen as such. In a big war between the two great powers embargo would be embedded in their strategic relationship. Would the US be the first great sea power not to employ embargo against its continental adversary? Would embargo even be a strategic choice? 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? (Will the writer ever overcome the urge to pose rhetorical questions?)
Whatever its possible merits, some see embargo as undesirable because it may not produce the 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 embargo of China would have large negative effects on the economies of US and its allies and on the global economy at large, seeing 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). 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 embargo may provide details useful in shaping US policy for dealing with the global economy of a world at war. The attitudes and behavior of allies and neutrals could play an important role in determining the efficacy of embargo.
In the hypothetical case at hand a big war that has been started by China. Many states will suffer from its effects. 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 allied and neutral support for its war effort, while minimizing, as much as possible, negative economic effects on third parties.
Excluding, one hopes, attacks on the territories of the warring parties (for reasons discussed below), there should be no limits on the geographic scope and nature of embargo operations against the adversary. The US and its allies would impose a embargo at sea but also in the air. No aircraft, military or civil, would be permitted to enter or leave China except, possibly, via China’s continental backdoor. Maritime states whose geography might permit them to serve as “embargo-busters,” would become targets of US diplomacy and, if necessary coercive action, including via embargo. (autarkic 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 borders. The Maritime Silk Road of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would be shut down. China’s aspirations in the Arctic would be a thing of the past. Chinese-owned submarine communication cables 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, military embargo would be accompanied by technological and financial embargo. The US and its allies would force China to rely solely on its indigenous means to compete for technological superiority.
Blockade in Navy Thinking
Blockade of China has been the subject of lively public discussion (the work of Collins, Hammes, Mirsky, and Holmes** will be cited here). However, embargo is never mentioned in the Navy’s official statements of its strategic purposes in war versus China—or anyone else. Embargo does not exist as an entry in the November 2019 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, has disappeared from the 21st century strategic discourse of the US Navy.
A review of the seven documents seen by Tangredi*** as expressing the Navy’s current 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 today. 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 defense against threats to that access and against threats to the transit on the sea of the resulting commerce. Offense—embargo—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].”
Embargo was not mentioned in the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, nor any Navy planning documents from earlier in the Cold War. I will hazard that the Navy has not thought about embargo as a strategic use of forces since 1945. This seems remarkable given the immense success during World War II of the US submarine embargo of Japan and its mining of Japan’s coastal waters, not to mention subsequent successful “embargos“ like the quarantine of Cuba in 1962 or the mining of North Vietnamese ports in 1972, For generations of Navy thinkers embargo is, at most, a historical concept. (Till points out (p. 245) 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 is Embargo Ignored?
Explanations by outsiders regarding why embargo versus China (or anyone else) is officially ignored necessarily have a speculative tone. Many seem plausible. Let’s look at five.
First, it may be that US actions taken at sea against China’s A2/AD are expected to produce the effects of a embargo, whether called by that name or not. China’s ports would be closed and its merchant fleet would not 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 embargo would be far less effective 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 “embargo,” 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 a embargo of Russia, to enhance deterrence during a period of severe crisis, high value Chinese civil ships might be marked and shadowed.
Second, it may be, as Till noted, that embargo is not always 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 (despite the apparently forgotten experience of successful embargo of Japan during the Second World War).
Instead, the Navy’s post-Cold War experience with embargo, 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)). 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 can be “fighting smart.”
Third, Collins has raised a deeper issue: that consideration of embargo as a strategic option might divert attention from, and thus undercut Navy procurement arguments for, the need to acquire larger, more robust forces to overcome China A2/AD barriers. The Collins’ articles point to a problem that is rarely explicitly acknowledged.
Within 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 and maintaining 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 its predecessors have shaped and the nation has provided. The force procurement future should not dictate the force employment present. The crucial priority today is to underwrite diplomacy and deter aggression by adversaries by being ready to fight a war and terminate it successfully if war nonetheless comes. 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, embargo does not only compete as a rationale for future force requirements. It also competes for today’s Navy planning and training resources. There is only so much time, and you can’t plan and train for everything. It’s an open question whether the Navy planning system has sufficient bandwidth to deal with anti-A2/AD and with embargo 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. Similarly, training time is a precious resource and, to the degree that preparing for embargo takes time away from preparing for anti-A2/AD, hard choices must be made. Little wonder that a major “new” strategic task like embargo has been given short shrift.
Fifth, how to best use the total force is problematic. Blockade’s implementation would put heavy demands on the already over-stretched 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 embargo and is one that Navy planners are wrestling with today. In the case of embargo the 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 and subsequently patrolling the world ocean to ensure that the embargo vise closes permanently. (Aviation capable amphibious ships might be similarly employed – perhaps with some modifications.) Given the large size of the Chinese merchant and fishing fleets this would likely not be a brief process. Obviously, a war with China would occasion a host of other threats to US allies in which the carriers and amphibs/USMC could provide an urgent and highly useful response – e.g., North Korea’s threat to the South, Russia’s aggression against states, including NATO members, 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. In local waters near China, China may or may not be able to prevent the US from achieving control there, should it seek to. But the US can almost certainly prevent China from controlling those waters for beneficial payoff. 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. In any case, 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.
Preventing China from using the sea is likely to have direct and far- reaching consequences. China is already heavily dependent on seaborne import of energy, raw materials, and even foodstuffs. Though they have been heavily analyzed, it is not imports that are the first, likely key, mechanism of embargo’s effect. 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 a global supply chain or end products tailored exclusively for Western customers. Depriving China of its exports would have a strong disruptive effect. It would be the job of experts on China’s economy and on its political system to estimate the size of such effects, the measures that China might take in compensation, and the likely consequences for China’s internal political stability and its ability to wage war.
As for imports, the effects of embargo must be evaluated in light of their totality—fuel, raw materials, manufactured components, foodstuffs—not fuel alone. Even though effect of the loss imported oil might be evaluated to the third decimal point, as do the two Collins articles, they are simply not the defining measure of the consequences for China of a total cut-off of its oceanic trade. Again, trade, both imports and exports, is a topic for experts on China’s economy and politics to estimate with as much precision as possible.
More important than the lucubration’s of Western analysts are the views held by the Chinese themselves. In 2003, President Hu Jintao’s publicly acknowledged that China faced as “Malacca dilemma,” meaning its 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 embargo….” It’s intriguing but probably impossible to know what President Hu and professor Hu thinks of Westerners’ views that China is not vulnerable to coercion from the sea, or, if it 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.
What Kind of War with China
Hammes and Mirsky underline that the determinants of the desirability and the details of embargo 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 embargo is to operate in a new globalized world where even the great continental powers may be vulnerable to coercion from the sea, embargo is in fact quite robust. It would be effective independent of scenario or of the stakes of the war envisioned or actually being fought. I respectfully suggest that those seeing things otherwise articulate the reasons why.
It is nonetheless useful to examine plausible scenarios to understand better how embargo might work in concert with other uses of US/Allied sea power.
What scenarios? As this is written in the spring 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. The first issue is the big case that requires planning for a major US response. Such a conflict would likely have a fairly discernible binary outcome: Either Taiwan remains independent or it is absorbed into China. The US would be unlikely to accept the latter 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 embargo against China and keep it in force until China agrees to the restoration at or near the status quo ante.
The second issue is more complicated because the stakes that may be in contention are ill-defined. It is difficult to specify in advance what would constitute victory or defeat: who wins or loses what. Purely for purposes of illustration, I will posit here that war with China could arise as a result of aggressive Chinese military actions to assert sovereignty over contested islands or waters. In this case, something less than all-out embargo might be employed—its extent and duration calibrated to meet the possibly ambiguous circumstances at hand.
Proposed Actions vs. China
These actions are generally the same as those against Russia, described in the Embargo vs. Russia post. However, because of China’s sense of deep historical grievance against the West, public characterization of embargo 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, embargo 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 embargo. In a strategic sense the global embargo being argues here does not make that distinction, though at the operational and tactical levels, it is quite valid.
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 embargo 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 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.
- The overarching advantage of embargo vs. China is that it could be implemented at little additional risk to US or allied forces—beyond the threats they already face from China’s long range anti-ship capabilities. Because relatively few Chinese wartime imports would originate in ports near China (it’s assumed that South Korea and Japan would end trade with China), ships carrying oil, raw materials, or food to the country could be interdicted at distances from China where there is little possibility that it could take defensive counteractions. (This assumption may change as China’s naval building programs progress, as is widely foreseen.) Just like the Russia case, seizure would be better than sinking Chinese ships. It is assumed that few third parties would be willing to risk ships in US-declared exclusion zones.
- Almost as important, the US would hold the initiative at both the tactical and the operational—that is, theater-wide—levels. Individual Chinese ships could be shadowed, disabled, 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 embargo 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 embargo itself. It can be presumed that, after several Chinese warships and merchant ships are disabled or sunk, Chinese decision makers have already recognized the difficult position that embargo presents. China specialists can offer informed assessments of China’s possible responses. I offer a general one below under the heading “War Termination.”
- Embargo 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 embargo might require relatively little in additional expenditures.
- Embargo 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 like to join in. As in times past, contributions by allies would be a great force multiplier, freeing US forces for other missions.
- Embargo is an asymmetric response that would be difficult for China to answer. It could be used to augment US sea denial or 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 tried to explain why this argument has not so far been found compelling by the Navy’s leadership.) Embargo would render useless half of China’s BRI. China would face a difficult choice: Desist from aggressive military action – or give up all earnings from sea-borne exports and expected payoff from vast investments in the BRI and other overseas agricultural and manufacturing ventures. These not only 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, embargo would be implemented. In any case, the underlying threat of embargo might underline the seriousness of 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 embargo cannot be ruled out. As in the Russia case, because embargo’s injury to China originates from US actions at sea, the first focus of China’s response would be at sea—likely targeting a CVSG with missiles launched from submarines outside Chinese territorial waters. And, as with Russia, the absence of symmetrical Chinese targets at sea would make the decision regarding a US response extremely difficult—and so in need of intense study.
- Embargo might take too much time to produce effect, during which China might achieve the military goals it seeks—for example, seizure of Taiwan—and then adopt a defensive position from which it might be difficult to dislodge. This seems valid, to a point. If efforts to defend Taiwan failed, a continuing embargo could make Taiwan an isolated outpost whose communications with the mainland would be subject to US military pressure. In addition, embargo could continue to impose heavy costs on the Chinese economy for as long as the US and its allies chose to keep it in force. Whether such damage might lead China to relinquish its military gains needs to be part of the much needed larger analysis of embargo’s effects. The issue is heavily related to the next con.
- China’s internal measures to minimize embargo’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 period might be quite prolonged. 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 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.)
- Embargo vs. China may be judged too difficult to carry out. In particular, US ISR may not be up to the task of identifying, locating, and sorting out the myriad ships in the Chinese merchant fleet—the largest nationally-flagged fleet in the world. (China’s state-owned COSCO shipping company alone reportedly owned over 1000 ships in 2017.) The picture is further complicated by China’s fishing fleet, which reportedly comprises over 200,000 motorized vessels including more than 25,000 ships of 100 tons or greater.
- If ISR cannot be upgraded to meet requirements for distant embargo—where the task may in fact be simpler because Chinese ships may be easier to isolate against a less complicated background—then effort would have to be focused nearer to China proper. This would diminish one of the most attractive features of embargo at least with respect to the surface Navy. It is assumed that the contribution of SSNs would be little affected. Nor would it affect US offensive mine warfare, which in due course may include propulsion disabling warheads. (As noted, the US would hold the initiative regarding embargo which it could implement at the pace it sees fit.)
- Even if ISR is upgraded, the task of marshaling and coordinating US and allied forces for a global interdiction campaign could be extremely challenging because of the many ports from which China’s imports originate, the large oceanic areas, and the thousands of potential targets involved.
- China might respond with offensive mining of the ports of US forward bases, the ports of US allies, or US ports in Hawaii or even the West Coast. A embargo strategy would dictate serious attention to US countermine capabilities.
- If analysis shows embargo could yield the promise suggested above, US strategic thinking may come to center too much on it and other embargo dimensions of relations with China and so let cooperative possibilities atrophy. If possible, embargo should be kept in the background of US-Chinese military-to-military diplomacy.
- As in the Russia case, embargo 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 embargo on behalf of purely economic interests.
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.
If a global embargo of China should become a growing military and economic success, would war termination be on the horizon? The answer may be found in a complex series of questions—some answerable, some less so. First, would the Chinese economy in general be forced into sharp contraction? How specifically would its war economy be affected? Could autarkical measures show prospect of providing relief? Could external aid from Russia (see below) permit China to fight on for a considerable period?
Second, to the degree there is economic distress, would that distress translate into internal political instability and/or external military vulnerability? Specialists in Chinese economic and Chinese security affairs, inside (especially) and outside the US government, must address these questions to gauge the desirability of a embargo strategy. The range of uncertainty can probably be narrowed considerably. China specialists will need deep liaison with corresponding specialists on Russia.
The Critical 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 war termination arises as a result of embargo or any other US actions versus China—though embargo 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 embargo.
The US-China-Russia triangle may well be the cosmic issue confronting geostrategists 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 embargo 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.
Nonetheless, 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 400 years 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. Russia would be especially interested in, and 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, 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 embargo 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 embargo 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 embargo 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 Fleet-in-Being post) and other conservative principles.
China’s Unilateral Options
Beyond benefiting from Russia’s support and in contrast to Russia itself, China possesses the capability to respond to embargo 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 of embargo 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.)
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 embargo 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 embargo 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: China would turn its back on the global ocean 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.
Regardless of whether such tectonic change lies in the future, US plans have to made today. If they include embargo of China they would have to be deeply Joint, starting at the strategic level. Blockade at sea means reinforcement ashore in Korea. The Kim regime has almost certainly foreseen the opportunities that a US-China war would present. Delayed and urgent dispatch of US reinforcements might well “justify” and trigger an aggressive move south by Pyongyang. Blockade demands that identical thinking be devoted to the stiffening the defense of Taiwan.
Similarly, embargo 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 embargo for friends and even neutrals would need to be taken into account. At the same time dealing with potentially hostile “embargo busters,” like Myanmar, would require careful thought.
I will assume that such coordinated planning of this nature can be effected, because without it embargo would be unlikely to realize its full potential. If so, embargo would operate at the level of national strategy, is robustly applicable across all plausible scenarios, it 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 A2/AD, if the latter is pursued, and will inevitably arise in any war lasting more than a a few weeks. Further, at this time, embargo would be difficult for China to answer. Blockade would also face a daunting roster of cons.
The Navy has long ignored embargo. Its promise should be carefully assessed. The Intelligence Community should be alerted to address collection and analytical requirements implied by embargo. 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 embargo is deemed feasible and likely to produce success, it should be incorporated into a 21st century Maritime Strategy—immediately in NATO plans vs. Russia and slowly, with minimal fanfare, vs. China in the future.
* Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (4th ed.) (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 241.
** 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), p 88, available at wwwusnwcedu/ and 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).
*** 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