23 January 2022
This post was formerly called Global Blockade vs. China. It has been revised, restructured, and retitled. It now recognizes that a naval blockade of China would be a leading component of a national strategy of military-economic warfare (described in the posts The National Defense Strategy of the United States: Military-economic Warfare, Global Blockade and Cyber and the National Security Strategy of the United States: Geopolitics.) This post shares language and logic with a parallel post on Russia. To avoid duplication cross references are occasionally made. In keeping with the Clio blog’s philosophy, the aim of the ideas being advanced is not to win battles but to win wars.
The unprecedented changes in geopolitics brought by globalization have made China dependent on unfettered use of the sea and therefore vulnerable to coercion from the sea.
Should there be war, the US, joined by its allies, should employ a sea-centered strategy of military-economic warfare against China.
Its immediate aims would be to attack the adversary’s war and civil economy and defend those of the US, its allies, and important neutrals. Its ultimate aims are to force China into unwise strategic choices and reduce China’s ability and willingness to wage war to close to zero.
To achieve these goals the strategy would 1) through military action prevent China from using the world ocean for any purpose (here designated “blockade”); 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; and 3) if the NCA chooses escalation, employ strategic bombardment for air/missile attacks on China’s military-economic infrastructure.
Blockade is the offensive use of sea control capabilities; it is not an alternative or substitute for other uses of the military forces of the US, particularly the Navy and Marine Corps. It is a complement to actions to defeat enemy armed forces, 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 capitalizes on 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.
Blockade on a less-than-global scale via submarine and concentrated mine warfare would be highly useful in the defense of Taiwan by directly defeating a Chinese attempt to invade or blockade the island or by preventing China from resupplying any forces ashore there.These actions would be geographically limited, entirely at sea, manifestly defensive, and would not involve strikes on the Chinese homeland with consequent risk of a wider conflict (never zero).
Authoritative analyses are a prerequisite to national decision: 1) the Joint Staff/OSD should direct NIE-level estimates of the likely effects on China’s behavior of a strategy of sea-centered military-economic warfare; 2) the Navy and Marine Corps should initiate an assessment of the operational feasibility of blockade — specifically to deprive China any use of the world ocean — and 3) planning should begin for the coordination of military blockade with the accompanying civil components of US national power and that of allies and friends.
If a strategy of military-economic warfare is judged likely to contribute to deterring war with China or producing an acceptable outcome in war, then 1) a blockade-fostering geopolitical rationale should be made part of the National Security Strategy and military-economic warfare (blockade and cyber) incorporated into the National Defense Strategy; and 2) blockade in a war vs. China (and/or other adversaries) should be quietly, deliberately incorporated into a 21st-century Maritime Strategy
This post assesses the potential of naval blockade as the principal component (along with cyber — not addressed) of a US national strategy of military-economic warfare versus China. Such a strategy may include strategic bombardment of China’s military-economic infrastructure which is optional, not required.
A war with China 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. The writer strongly endorses this point, as does every other analyst who has commented in the public domain.
It will be argued that in addition to whatever other military measures the US and its allies may take in response to Chinese aggression, the US should mount a global, sea-centered blockade against China.* A key point: blockade here is qualified as “sea-centered” because the objective of military operations would be to deny the enemy the use the sea. The “Joint” military forces of the US and its allies would execute such operations with the Sea Services in a leading role. Wherever “naval” is used in what follows it is meant in a “Joint” context.
Let’s define terms, look at the place of blockade among other strategic tasks, examine its characteristics in the 21st century and review the pros and cons of actions to enforce blockade. After a brief excursion into the question of how blockade might affect China’s national and naval acquisition plans, the essay reviews how a war might (or might not) terminate.
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-centered, military-economic campaign against China.
This would be a national strategy, employing all elements of national power and reflected in a revised The National Defense Strategy of the United States and a rewritten The National Security Strategy of the United States. The former should incorporate military-economic warfare and acknowledge that a major war can be lost or won on the world’s ocean as well as on land areas. The latter should recognize that the US is a geopolitical sea power in a long term competition with China and Russia, two great continental powers, and so possesses innate advantages that must be exploited to the fullest.
Blockade, military-economic warfare’s 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 as close to zero as possible China’s ability and willingness to wage war. The ultimate objective would be to exploit the coercive effects of blockade in negotiations for war termination.
In addition to this offensive use of the sea power, an advantageous defensive use will be described. The US and its allies, through submarine and massive defensive mine warfare, can help protect Taiwan against sea-dependent Chinese initiatives (e.g., amphibious invasion, resupply of forces inserted onto the island, blockade of Taiwan’s commerce). Note, however, these actions would not fall into the category of military-economic warfare. Rather, they would constitute a war action aimed at countering and destroying the enemy’s armed forces.
Military-economic warfare requires that naval blockade and the non-naval, civil components 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 suggest that disruption of the adversary’s social order and political cohesion might then ensue); 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 aims are to inhibit blockade-busting states, to cement and enlarge the pro-US coalition of allies and friends, and to maintain popular support 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 21st 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.
Blockade is Robust but not Singular
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 seems likely 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, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 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’s 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.)
Characteristics of Blockade vs. China in the 21st Century
These descriptions lie at the level of strategic concept—the broad employment of all forces and means. Operations, tactics, platforms, weapons, CSIR, logistics, and so forth, 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 and 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.) All maritime activities of any importance including fisheries and scientific research would be targeted.
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. 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 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.
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 finance and compete for technological superiority.
If the NCA chooses to escalate, blockade can be coupled with strategic bombardment of the infrastructure of China’s war economy, possibly focused on key sectors like shipbuilding and repair. This would be an all-service undertaking with the Navy contributing ample strike capabilities with CPS, cruise missiles, and, if conditions permit, carrier tactical aviation. The decision to attack Chinese territory for military-economic purposes or for purely military ones would be among the gravest faced by the US NCA—inviting, perhaps guaranteeing, answering Chinese strikes on the territory of the US and its allies.
Blockade would utilize advanced technologies and make maximum use of propulsion disablers (PDs). PDs, not yet produced or deployed (as far as is publicly known), are very small torpedoes that disable a ship by attacking its screws and rudders while minimizing human casualties or other damage. (PDs would be especially useful as mine warheads because of their low cost and ability to discriminate between own and enemy ships. See the post Propulsion Disablers). Need for board and search would be rare though resource-intensive effort would be required to deal with disabled ships and their crews. No Chinese civil ship would be allowed to sail. Third parties would be put on notice that if their ships enter US exclusion zones, they too would be subject to PD attack.
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 the longer term force balance.)
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.
However, the balance of forces is never 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 short on fact and data. Serious assessment cannot go forward without searching, expert analyses of the likely effects on China of a campaign of sea-centered military-economic warfare as well as China’s probable reactions to it. Also 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 National Defense Strategy, might react. For example, China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner. Attacking China’s economy would likely inflict dire collateral damage on Vietnam’s. 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 other 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 (This 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 its 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. One must also 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. 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 some 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 (though 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 confined to the restoration of the status quo ante.
The US and its allies must credibly threaten to deprive China the use of the world ocean for a strategically meaningful period of time. It is difficult to suggest what that duration could be. The experience of the world wars of the last century suggests years may be more likely. To strategists who find that the prospect of such a lengthy period disqualifies blockade from further consideration, the question must be posed: What planning horizon is deemed appropriate for war with a great, nuclear armed, continental power? What other offensive (or even defensive) employment plans for the nation’s sea power seem likely to produce acceptable results more quickly? Thus far none has been put forward for public discussion.
How Would China 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: How would China likely react to US adoption of blockade?
Recalling that blockade is part of a larger strategy of military-economic warfare, the first answer is that China would seek to “harden” its economy and make it more resilient to the effects of blockade. One way to do that would be to increase domestic consumption and reduce the economy’s dependence on international trade. (As noted, questions of this sort are best explored by specialists in Chinese and international economics, not naval strategists.)
In the military sphere, China would likely react simply by continuing its naval building plans. This writer’s opinion is that China has long assumed that the US planned to blockade in war and that assumption is “baked into” the naval programs we see unfolding today. However, China could accelerate those programs and increase their focus on counter-blockade capabilities (e.g., on counter-mine warfare and ASW).
More generally, 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 1940s 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.)
Regrettably, 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 may yet 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 the planner’s first obligation is to defend the nation’s vulnerabilities, independent of any specific threat that may arise — will likely build a great navy for the purpose of national maritime defense. It would unwise for the US not to make its competitive and, especially, its cooperative plans based on that assumption.
Proposed Actions vs. China
The actions described here would have the same general shape as those against Russia (see the Russia post). However, because of China’s 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 could achieve its possible military objectives only by controlling the seas along its periphery. The US has and would pursue the option of seeking to deny Chinese forces such control.
Hammes, Mirsky, and Collins distinguish between near and far blockade. Global blockade being addressed here at the strategic level 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 if the US chooses to deploy “tripwire” forces on Taiwanese soil.
In any case, blockade in defense of Taiwan would be a highly attractive option operationally and politically. Operationally, through submarine warfare and massive defensive mine fields (the latter all in Taiwan’s territorial waters, much of which could be of Taiwanese manufacture and deployment), China could be prevented from resupplying any forces it may manage to put ashore on the island. The strategy would be potent and difficult for China to counter.
Politically, because blockade mounted in Taiwan’s defense would be geographically limited to the waters that China must control to carry out its initiatives, all blockade action would be a response to China’s offense. All would be executed entirely at sea. It would be unnecessary to strike the Chinese homeland. China could not claim victim-hood, and, facing an untenable military situation, likely to be forced to accept a restoration of the status quo ante. The writer assumes that Chinese planners are well aware of this vulnerability and suggests that it be a leading candidate in Western discussions of Taiwan’s defense.
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 world ocean.
- 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 against the backdrop 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 loss 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 achieved through economic sanctions alone. But a shooting war would mean that economic sanctions had proven 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 on a global scale may be judged too difficult to carry out. US ISR may not be up to the task of locating and identifying myriad ships in the Chinese merchant and fishing fleets.
- Blockade may absorb forces needed urgently for other tasks. This question is more a long-standing objection to blockade where it is seen as an exclusive alternative to all other uses of the force. It has not been subjected to analysis; and the proposed “other tasks,” posed as alternatives, lack definition as to the what, why, where, and when of force employment.
- 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 the case of Russia, civil dimensions of military-economic warfare may lie beyond the capacity of the US and its allies to control. In addition, negative international and domestic consequences may combine to render naval blockade nugatory, as they did for Britain in the initial period of 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. No matter what, China can be sure to label blockade a “gangster” strategy. If this hypothetical case should come to pass, the charge would carry some weight.
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. Defining and articulating plans for a lesser outcome is a complex and challenging task. Without addressing it, any strategy remains incomplete.
China’s internal measures to minimize blockade’s effects on its economy might be successful enough to prolong its 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, there is reason to believe that for the US that period might be quite prolonged. As noted, a geographically limited blockade of China on behalf of Taiwan’s defense would likely be a winning strategy.
In general, 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 its behavior. If so, would war termination be on the horizon? As noted, a definitive answer must come from China specialists in close consultation with specialists in Russian affairs. Here follows some conjecture based on the logic of the strategic situation.
The Role of Russia
Russia is likely the most important factor in the war termination equation vs. China. Note that this is probably true whether the war termination question confronts China’s leaders 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 wilI doubtless take many unforeseen turns as the years unfold. These comments on this overarching matter are confined to 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”. Russia’s own interests would be advanced by prolonging a US-China war which 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 could have 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, Russia 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 to 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 become markets 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. (See the post “The National Security Strategy of the United States: Geopolitics.”)
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.
It is also 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 post Fleet-in-Being) and other conservative principles.
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 growing 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 that need would 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 might 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 (assuming 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 Seoul and Taipei (though as noted, a PLA victory against the latter would not be sustainable if the US and its allies still possessed the means to blockade). 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, seek to 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 scenario China would plan to marshal the resources of the world island and in due course turn again toward the sea to reclaim its rightful place at the top of the international order.
The possibility that China might become suzerain of the world island and the resulting existential threat that China might pose to the US is addressed in the post “The National Security Strategy of the United States: Geopolitics.”
Whether such tectonic changes lie in an unforeseeable future, US strategy must be shaped to deal with China in the world of today. If the strategy is to include military-economic warfare, enforced by (Joint) 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 part of a Joint effort) 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. For further discussion see the post “The National Defense Strategy of the United States: Military-economic Warfare, Global Blockade, and Cyber.”
Effective military and non-military diplomacy will be crucial. Dealing with potential “blockade busters,” like Myanmar, will require careful thought and planning. The plight of friendly neutrals like Vietnam must be dealt with. Nations like India which would not wish to see China victorious might contribute significantly to policing blockade in ocean areas under its sway. The interests of Japan and Korea, today major trading partners with China, must be taken seriously into account.
Blockade would be the principal military component of a national strategy of military-economic warfare, It would be robust across all plausible scenarios. Its reach would extend into 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. Recently published CNO documents, “Advantage at Sea” (December 2020) and “CNO Navplan 2021” (January 2021) indicate traditional Navy disregard of blockade prevails. It is respectfully submitted that this is 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 the rest of the world, including the US itself. For reasons that seem difficult to explain, these assessments have heretofore been lacking. The 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 the answer to these questions is Yes, blockade should be incorporated into a 21st century Maritime Strategy—slowly, deliberately, without fanfare—and the National Defense and National Security Strategies should be adjusted accordingly.
Note: Many of the ideas expressed in this post and other posts dealing with blockade 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, 6-7 February 2020, at the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. The publisher will be the Naval War College Press.
* Others have made this argument albeit in different forms. The writer wishes to thank the following: Sean Mirsky, “Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 36, no. 3 (February 2013), ; T X Hammes “Off-shore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” Strategic Forum, no. 278 (June 2012); 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). None is in any way responsible for these remarks. All have been duly ignored by the Navy.
**See also Xu Qi, Andrew S. Erickson, and Lyle J. Goldstein, “MARITIME GEOSTRATEGY AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHINESE NAVY IN THE EARLY TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.” Naval War College Review 59, no. 4 (2006): 46-67.Translators, Erickson and Goldstein explain that Senior Captain Xu’s rationale for an expanded PLA Navy (expressed in 2004 in an article in China’s most prestigious military journal, China Military Science) rests on his contention that China’s “long period of prosperity [as well as] the Chinese nation’s existence, development, and great resurgence [all] increasingly rely on the sea.”
Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, January 23, 2022