How to Win a War with China

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

Such a minimum coalition could only arise in one way: on the heels of an assertive Chinese push for regional hegemony that precipitates local support for a drastic American response. Short of anything but an aggressive China, collective embargo action will be deterred by the potential consequences of a blockade, not least of which is the possibility of a larger regional conflict with China. The four states are unlikely to coalesce together around an implicit containment policy until each feels that its national interests may be threatened by China in the future.

While such a possibility may appear distant at present, the United States, Japan, India and Russia all fear that Beijing might someday conclude that it must use force in order to protect its interests and to resolve its security dilemma on favorable terms. All four powers have increasingly hedged their bets against this possibility. If China’s power and influence in Asia continues to increase, then the bonds between all four states will strengthen, not out of any conviction about China’s belligerent intentions, but rather because of a profound uncertainty as to their future disposition.

The Central Operational Challenge

Even assuming that the United States can rally the necessary coalition together, it would squarely face an operational challenge that bedevils all modern-day blockade strategies.

Operationally, blockades are characterized by their distance from the coast of the blockaded state, and they come in two forms: close and distant. A close blockade is typically enforced by stationing a cordon of warships off an enemy’s shores to search all incoming or outgoing merchant ships and to impound those carrying contraband. Over the last century and a half, though, close blockades have become increasingly dangerous as belligerents developed the technology to project power from their coasts. In response, blockading powers have turned to distant blockades. A distant blockade avoids the military hazards of being located near the enemy’s shores by stationing itself at a distance, albeit still astride the enemy’s sea lanes, and it then chokes off the enemy’s trade in a similar manner to the close blockade.

Neither a close nor a distant blockade of China alone would be successful thanks to the constraints imposed by military requirements and the nature of maritime commerce. On the one hand, a conventional close blockade would be severely complicated by the United States’ desire to minimize the military risk to American warships. As American forces came closer to China, they would increasingly place themselves within range of China’s A2/AD complex, possibly limiting their operational freedom and resulting in heavy losses. American forces could avoid the perils of China’s A2/AD system by implementing a close blockade enforced by submarines, long-range air power, and mines; but by so doing, the blockade would also lose much of its ability to differentiate between neutral and enemy commerce.

On the other hand, the logic behind conventional distant blockades has similarly been undermined by the exigencies of modern commerce. Today’s cargoes of raw materials and merchandise can be sold and re-sold many times in the course of a voyage, so the ultimate ownership and destination of a ship’s cargo is often unknowable until the moment it docks. Although the United States might be able to set up a conventional distant blockade that quarantined all Chinese-owned or -flagged vessels, China could still simply buy neutral vessels’ cargoes after they had passed through the blockade, defeating its entire purpose.

The Solution: A Two-Ring Blockade

To remedy the infirmities of the two blockades, the United States would take the best of both worlds and implement a “two-ring” blockade made up of two concentric rings around China’s shores.

The heart of the two-ring blockade would be its “inner ring,” which would be an unconventional close blockade primarily aimed at neutralizing vessels bound for China without having to board them first. This ring would establish an exclusion zone around China’s coast—an area that is declared off-limits to commercial shipping, and enforced by a “sink-on-sight” policy—through the use of attack submarines, long-distance airpower, and mines. Unlike other military assets, these three capabilities could operate with relative impunity within the range of China’s A2/AD complex by taking advantage of China’s feeble anti-submarine warfare capabilities and attenuated mine-countermeasure forces. While this trifecta of military assets would not guarantee total impassibility, the exclusion zone could still achieve the blockade’s aims because the fulcrum of the United States’ campaign would be grounded in deterrence rather than in force. As soon as American forces conspicuously sank several large merchant vessels, the majority of other shipping would be deterred from trying to run the blockade and much of the regular flow of China’s maritime commerce would quickly dry up.

But while submarines, long-distance airpower and mines could effectively enforce an exclusion zone as part of the inner ring blockade, they are all blunt instruments that can neither tell the difference between a ship carrying Chinese cargo and one carrying Japanese cargo, nor stop, board, and search suspicious vessels. As a result, an inner ring blockade on its own would likely spawn considerable political problems as the United States unintentionally destroyed neutral vessels, and Washington could face further political consequences from the exclusion zone’s inability to allow medical care and basic necessities through to China.