How to Win a War with China

A blockade can work, if backed by the right diplomacy under the right circumstances.

The mounting challenge presented by China’s military modernization has led the United States to review existing military strategies and to conceptualize new ones, as illustrated by the ongoing debate over AirSea Battle (ASB), a new concept of operations put forward by the Department of Defense. But in the universe of possible strategies, the idea of a naval blockade deserves greater scrutiny. By prosecuting a naval blockade, the United States would leverage China’s intense dependence on foreign trade—particularly oil—to debilitate the Chinese state. A carefully organized blockade could thus serve as a powerful instrument of American military power that contributes to overcoming the pressing challenge of China’s formidable anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) system. A blockade could also be easily paired with alternate military strategies, including those based on ASB.

In the context of a Sino-American war, the United States could try to take China’s greatest national strength—its export-oriented, booming economic-growth model—and transform it into a major military weakness. To do so, the United States would implement a naval blockade of China that attempted to choke off most of China’s maritime trade. Under the right conditions, the United States might be able to secure victory by debilitating China’s economy severely enough to bring it to the negotiating table.

Yet until recently, a blockade strategy was largely overlooked, perhaps because economic warfare strategies seem inherently misguided given the close commercial ties between China and the United States. But if a serious conflict between the two nations erupted, then their immediate security interests would quickly override their trade interdependence and wreak enormous economic damage on both sides, regardless of whether a blockade were employed.

Even if a blockade is never executed, its viability would still impact American and Chinese policies for deterrence reasons. The United States’ regional strategy is predicated on the belief that a favorable military balance deters attempts to change the status quo by force, thus reassuring allies and upholding strategic stability. The viability of a blockade influences this calculus, and can accordingly affect American and Chinese actions—both military and nonmilitary—that are based on perceptions of it. If a naval blockade is a feasible strategy, it strengthens the American system of deterrence and dilutes any potential attempts by China to coerce the United States or its allies. Moreover, if a blockade’s viability can be clearly enunciated, it would also enhance crisis stability and dampen the prospects of escalation due to misunderstandings—on either side—about the regional balance of power. In short, as Elbridge Colby put it: “the old saw remains true, that the best way to avoid war is to prepare for it.”

While a blockade is not a priori impossible or irrelevant in any situation, it is also not a ready tool in the American arsenal and would be feasible mainly within certain boundaries. Most importantly, many commentators miss the fact that a blockade is a context-dependent strategy, one that crucially depends on the regional environment.

The Strategic Context

A blockade would not be employed lightly by the United States, given its significant potential costs. Accordingly, Washington would likely only consider employing a blockade in a protracted conflict over vital interests; anything less would simply fail a basic cost-benefit analysis.

More importantly, though, a blockade strategy would depend on the cooperation of several third parties in the region. After all, China’s trade is borne on the seas largely as a result of economic considerations rather than physical limitations; if China were blockaded, it would turn to the countries on its borders for help.

While many of its neighbors would be unable to make a strategic difference because of their rugged geography or their small size, three could prove vital: India, Japan, and Russia. The latter two would be important in helping the United States by cutting off China’s trade routes in its south and east, respectively, through implementing national embargoes on China and pressuring their smaller neighbors to do the same. Without their cooperation, the United States’ task would become much more difficult.

The last of the three neighbors—Russia—would be the lynchpin of a successful blockade, and could tip the balance of a blockade in favor of either China or the United States. On the one hand, Russia is remarkably well-positioned to alleviate the blockade’s effects on China. Russian trade would be immune to American interdiction, since Russia’s nuclear arsenal and significant conventional assets preclude any serious American attempts at military coercion. But on the other hand, China’s northern neighbor could also sound the death knell for China’s ability to resist a blockade. On the political level, Moscow continues to exert sway over the decisions made in the capitals of China’s Central Asian neighbors and could convince them to refuse Chinese entreaties to act as transit states. It could also guarantee that China’s two neighboring oil producers would no longer supply it with petroleum.