To Defeat China In War, Strangle Its Economy


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Cutting off China from its trading partners and sources of oil, natural gas and other resources could be the best, and least costly, way for the United States to defeat China in a major war.

To that end, the U.S. Navy should prepare to blockade China, according to Bradford Dismukes, a retired Navy captain and political scientist. “Globalization has made China, a great continental power, dependent on the use of the sea and thus vulnerable to coercion from the sea,” Dismukes wrote.

Blockade is an ancient strategy. Surround your enemies. Starve and impoverish them.

Blockade-enforcement by way of naval forces is only slightly less ancient. But it’s also unsexy as far as naval doctrine goes, and thus many American planners have tended to ignore it, Dismukes explained.

With China’s rise as an economic and military power, that’s beginning to change. China is unique among world powers in its near-total reliance on sea trade. Ships import an array of critical resources, most importantly oil. Ships also carry the bulk of China’s exports.

In April 2020, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday became one of the first top Pentagon officials in many years publicly to write about blockade. “In broad theoretical terms, naval forces exist [in part to] prevent an adversary’s seaborne movement of commerce and military forces,” Gilday wrote in Naval Doctrine Publication 1.

As a concept, blockade dovetails with “sea control,” the practice of exerting exclusive control of a swathe of ocean by positioning ships and defeating any intruding enemies. “The ability to control or deny sea-space may also be applied to conduct blockades in wartime or as a means to control crises,” Gilday explained.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Blockading China would require a coordinated effort by the whole of the U.S. government and its closest allies. “There should be no limits on the geographic scope and nature of blockade-enforcement actions,” Dismukes wrote.

“The U.S. and its allies would interdict Chinese seaborne trade as well as all air traffic. Maritime states whose geography might permit them to serve as ‘blockade-busters’ would become targets of U.S. diplomacy and, if necessary coercive action, including via interdiction of their seaborne trade.”

Naval enforcement of a blockade of China could play out in two phases, according to Dismukes. “U.S. 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.”

“Given the large size of the Chinese merchant and fishing fleets this might not be a brief process,” Dismukes quipped.

“Subsequent patrol of the world ocean to ensure that the [blockade-enforcement] vise remains tightly closed might be left mainly to allied navies, freeing U.S. carriers for other tasks.” American submarines, however, should continue to play a major role in the blockade, intercepting and sinking any ships that tried to slip into or out of Chinese ports.

Beijing could struggle to break the blockade. The Chinese military in recent decades has focused its energy on denying its near waters to U.S. forces in order to stop the United States from intervening in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Chinese rockets, bombers and submarines are potent on a regional level but lack global range. That limits their ability to halt a U.S.-led blockade. American and allied surface forces could create their main cordon just beyond the range of Chinese rockets.

Stealthier U.S. forces—namely, submarines—could push closer to China for more specific and local blockade-enforcement. The Chinese navy and air force probably couldn’t stop them. “The U.S. can almost
certainly deny China control even of waters near China,” Dismukes wrote.

A blockade strategy isn’t foolproof or cost-free. Identifying and prioritizing the ships the blockading forces should target obviously would represent an enormous intelligence challenge, Dismukes explained.

And strangling China’s economy almost certainly would have negative knock-on effects for the United States and its allies. “A blockade of China would have large negative effects on the economies of U.S. and its allies and on the global economy at large,” Dismukes wrote.

But a blockade probably would hurt China much more than it hurt the United States. And it wouldn’t require American surface ships to linger inside the range of Chinese rockets. For those reasons the Pentagon at least should plan to enforce a blockade, Dismukes wrote. “It should be incorporated into the national strategy.”
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