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.
To combat these political consequences, the United States would implement a second, “outer ring” that would allow greater selectivity in applying force while also acting as a winnowing device. In contrast to the inner ring, the outer ring would be comprised largely of warships focused on both differentiating between different regional commerce with greater precision and adding a non-lethal component to the inner ring’s neutralization efforts. The outer ring would not be a prerequisite for the blockade’s operational success—although it would greatly help—but it would be vital in guaranteeing its strategic viability.
The outer ring would be positioned at the periphery of China’s near seas—outside the range of its A2/AD complex—and would be concentrated around key passageways in Southeast and East Asia, including the Straits of Malacca. The United States would establish blockade checkpoints at those passageways (like Malacca) that are most important to international shipping, while the smaller passageways would be closed off to international shipping completely.
At the outer ring’s checkpoints, the United States would need to set up and streamline a rigorous inspection regime. If the United States discovered that a vessel was destined for, owned by, or registered in China, then it could impound it.
The United States could also implement a system similar to the British navicert system in World War II, which would give the United States a fairly accurate spatial map of the positions and trajectories of all commercial vessels in the region. The United States would then integrate the navicert spatial map with the inner ring’s firepower to exert deadly force against blockade runners while also decreasing the rate of accidental sinkings—especially of humanitarian vessels. While an imperfect process, the navicert system would nevertheless substantially raise the risks of deviation for vessels to the point where running the blockade was so sufficiently perilous that it was no longer attempted, except by the most risk-loving vessels. Perhaps more importantly, though, it would help mollify the political repercussions that would flow from the inner ring blockade’s non-discriminatory and lethal neutralizations.
A Blockade’s Consequences
Although the consequences of a blockade would be exceedingly complex, manifold, and interdependent, a blockade would likely prove to be a cogent instrument of exhaustion as part of the United States’ overall campaign.
In the first place, however, it is worth recognizing that even the most effective blockade would not completely interdict Chinese trade, because even under ideal conditions, China would still be able to acquire the vital goods and resources courtesy of the inescapable laws of supply and demand. The more effectively the United States established a regional embargo, the higher the profit margins on selling imports to China. Even if all of China’s neighbors agreed to embargo, the United States would still have to resign itself to rampant smuggling at the substate level.
A blockade would also not be able to directly debilitate the Chinese military. Simply put, China could use its reserves and stockpiles, along with a limited degree of imports and domestic production, to fuel its military machine for the length of the conflict.
Therefore, the real value of a blockade would be its ability to exact an incredibly high financial toll on Beijing. In particular, a blockade would send the Chinese economy into a tailspin by hitting three distinct pressure points: China’s dual dependency on both intermediate and raw material imports and its low levels of domestic innovation. China has structured much of its export-oriented economy around the importation of intermediate goods, a phenomenon particularly evident in its high-technology sectors. This vulnerability is further compounded by its incredible dependence on raw materials (including oil) and foreign innovation as the basis of its production processes.
Because a blockade targets all three areas, it would exact a staggering cost. Of course, China might discover ways as time passed to substitute for its inability to trade and it might rebuild its economy from the ground up, but an ongoing conflict could nevertheless impose a devastating rate of economic attrition that exceeds Beijing’s compensating abilities.
The context, conduct, and consequences of an American blockade of China would be deeply embedded in the mire of global politics. To overcome the blockade’s various challenges successfully, the United States and its allies would have to carefully balance the strategic repercussions of their actions with their contribution to the efficacy of the overall blockade. In almost any context, this trade-off would be extremely difficult politically, and would require a high degree of flexibility and innovation on the United States’ part. The exact trade-offs would be made with a variety of considerations in mind, above all the value of the American interests implicated in the conflict.
Nevertheless, despite considerable challenges, a naval blockade is both operationally and strategically possible, albeit only within certain limits. Even against a maximally effective blockade, China would be able to meet its military needs indefinitely, and it could survive on its strategic petroleum reserves, stockpiles, and massive foreign-exchange reserves for an extended period of time. As a result, the effectiveness of a blockade would turn on its ability to impose debilitating economic costs on China.
If the United States were able to assemble its minimum coalition of India, Japan and Russia—a task that would hinge on China’s aggressive behavior—then China’s rate of economic exhaustion would sharply accelerate even as the United States gained the political support it would need to continue a blockading strategy indefinitely. In this context, while the United States would not be able to use Beijing’s dependence on maritime trade to defeat China decisively in one short blow, it would still be able to help sap Chinese strength until Beijing eventually submitted.
Sean Mirski is co-editor of Crux of Asia: China, India and the Emerging Global Order. This article is based on a longer piece originally published in the Journal of Strategic Studies.
Image: U.S. Navy Flickr.
Editor's Note: This piece first appeared on November 1, 2013 and is being recirculated due to reader interest.