A U.S. Naval Blockade of China?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was much debate about whether war between major powers in Asia was even imaginable. It is a disturbing sign of how much the strategic environment has deteriorated that analysts are now starting to write publicly about how such a war might be fought.

There is a growing literature on the U.S. concept of Air-Sea Battle, including the question of whether its use of conventional strikes against targets on the Chinese mainland would lead to wider escalation. Presumably this has struck a chord in the Chinese security debate – raising questions about the efficacy of an anti-access strategy against U.S. maritime forces – and perhaps that was the point.

Now there's another emerging theme in American open-source speculation about how a U.S.-China conflict could unfold – a naval blockade.

In one recent article, Sean Mirski sets forth what he sees as the elements of a potentially successful U.S.-led blockade strategy to impose huge economic costs on China in a hypothetical future confrontation or war.

Of course, a recognition of China's massive seaborne oil-supply vulnerabilities has influenced Beijing's defense, energy and foreign policies for a decade. Whether or not the U.S. Navy has serious plans for the possibility of blockading China, through the Malacca Strait and other chokepoints, there are presumably those in the Chinese security establishment who assume it does.

But a reading of this new offering to the debate suggests that maybe the Chinese don't need to worry so much.

In theory, the United States could inflict grievous harm on China in a conflict. After all, regardless of the changing conventional balance, America has overwhelming nuclear superiority. In practice, such crude measures of force are unlikely to count so much. The critical questions are about how much risk, cost and self-harm the United States, China, Japan and any other possible belligerents might be willing to incur in a prospective Asian maritime conflict.

Air-Sea Battle and its associated Joint Operational Access Concept are explicitly about risk, and a recognition that the U.S. would need to be willing to sustain some substantial military losses in a conflict. That leaves unanswered the overriding political question – how much risk is too much?

Likewise with the blockade idea. Mirski acknowledges that any attempt to strangle the Chinese economy as a conflict strategy would be "deeply embedded in the mire of global politics" and would exact great costs on the United States and other participants. And those participants, he argues, would need to include India and Japan, along with collaboration from Russia in refusing to provide emergency energy relief overland.

Where his analysis on this score is far from complete is the question of how far Washington and its allies would be willing to go in damaging the global economy – and their own economies – in order to prevail against China by using blockade as a principal weapon of war.

This leads to an even bigger question. If a reliance on nuclear deterrence against China is disproportionate or simply not credible, if conventional Air-Sea Battle is based on uncertain judgments about risk and political will, and if a blockade would be prone to global economic and diplomatic blowback, then what are the arrows that really count in America's strategic quiver in a contested Asia?

By Rory Medcalf


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