Blockading China: A Guide

October 1, 2013

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Earlier this year, a Chinese frigate locked weapon-targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer near the Senkaku Islands.  Both Japan and China lay territorial claims to these uninhabited islands, which are close to both Okinawa and Taiwan.  This is one of many territorial disputes that China has in the South and East China Seas.

Needless to say, there was no escalation in this particular instance: the Japanese destroyer did not respond, and the only volleys fired were of a diplomatic nature.  But what if things shake out differently next time? It is not hard to imagine such a scenario spinning out of control and leading to a shooting war.  What would the U.S. do if this led to a larger regional war?

Under this and many other scenarios, the U.S. would be obligated to defend its allies.  One way in which it might do this would be through a blockade of Chinese maritime traffic by U.S. forces, with the explicit support of nations that control key international straits, including Indonesia and Malaysia.  Though it would be costly and risky, a blockade could prove decisive.  T.X. Hammes and Sean Mirski contend that in the right circumstances, particularly a limited war of long duration, blockade could be a war winning strategy.

At the same time, however, a blockade would not be without its pitfalls. It would take a long time to enact. It would have to balance interdiction of oil imports against economic exports. And a blockading nation would also need to consider how to “hold the line” to prevent China from achieving its goal (in the above example, securing sea control of the Senkaku Island) while a blockade was taking effect.

Given its potential utility and also its possible downsides, decision makers and theater commanders must understand how a blockade of China would actually work and the precise conditions under which it holds promise.

What Should Be Blockaded?

When considering a blockade, the first question is: what commodity is to be targeted?  One obvious option is to target everything.  NWP 1-14, the Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, states that the belligerent right of blockade allows interdiction of all vessels and aircraft, regardless of cargo, crossing an exclusion zone.  Blockades established to starve a civilian populace are illegal, but a reasonable case could be made that China’s agricultural resources and medical capabilities can provide for the civil population even during a blockade.

But just because an option is legal, it is not necessarily wise. Total blockades, such as the Union blockade of the Confederacy or the German U-Boat campaign against Great Britain, are difficult and expensive. It is more efficient to target specific commodities.  For instance, during World War II, the United States used both the strategic air campaign in Europe and the submarine campaign in the Pacific to effectively target Germany’s and Japan’s oil infrastructures.  Such a strategy would prove effective in a long term conflict with China.

Indeed, much as it was for Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, oil is China’s Achilles’ heel. Chinese domestic oil production supplies only 40% of peacetime consumption and demand continues to increase, even during periods of zero or negative growth in exports (see 2001 and 2009).  Another advantage of targeting oil is the ease of discrimination.  An oil tanker is a unique vessel, easing the blockaders’ burden when identifying and prioritizing targets.  Significant smuggling of oil in other types of ships is impractical.  In addition, China would have a hard time importing enough oil over land due to difficult terrain, underdeveloped pipelines and competition for Russian oil.

However, China recognizes its reliance on foreign oil and has taken steps to reduce its vulnerability to supply disruptions.  Specifically, China has established a robust strategic oil reserve.   China’s 2011 strategic oil reserve was sufficient to supply 100% of domestic consumption (factoring in domestic production) for 25 days without rationing.  Improvements to this reserve are planned to more than double its duration by 2020, even factoring in an increase in Chinese oil demand.

The effect of a war on China’s demand for oil must also be considered.  China uses oil mostly for transportation, so given that a war would reduce Chinese exports (it would not, after all, continue trading with the United States and Japan), the demand for oil to transport goods would go down.  Overland transport mitigates China’s reliance on maritime oil, even though it provides only a small share of China’s total need.  A blockader also must be wary of resale of neutral oil that is allowed past the blockade, requiring a strong coalition to surround China.  Rationing, while it would be unpopular with the Chinese people, would further reduce demand for oil.

China’s export income of $2 trillion would be hard hit simply by declaring such a blockade (in addition to the immediate loss of revenue from U.S. ports closing their doors to China).  This immediate loss to China could provide the catalyst to end hostilities, and if China made a poor transition to a wartime economy, a disgruntled middle class could cost the Chinese  Communist Party dearly, thus reducing the perceived value of a war.

Still, the Chinese economy has proven resilient in times of reduced trade by replacing export income with internal investment and stimulus.  If China determined that the war objectives were worth the loss of exports, effectively managed nationalism could,in the short term buoy popular will during the immediate economic hardship.  As enthusiasm for the war effort faded, governmental control over the economy could then be leveraged to spur domestic development for long term maintenance of the economy (investment in fixed capital contributes 75% more to China’s economy than exports and government stimulus could increase this more).

But because the shift to domestic development would still require oil, the operational emphasis of a blockade should be on stopping oil while interdicting targets of opportunity when practicable.  Periodically interdicting a container ship gives credence to the export blockade and drives away customers, while the main effort still focuses on compromising China’s oil situation.  After all, WWII submariners still sank troop ships; they just sank the tankers first.

How Should a Blockade Be Conducted?

An ideal blockade of China would use multiple layers, with each layer having a different purpose.  These layers should include (1) a distant conventional blockade focused on chokepoints of sea lines of communications to China; (2) a close, unconventional maritime engagement zone, and (3) diplomatic engagement to embargo points of embarkation.

The most critical part of the blockade is the first: control of key chokepoints using conventional forces.  The focal point of this blockade would be the Strait of Malacca and nearby archipelagic straits through Indonesia.  These locations derive the protection of international law and the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, which states that that belligerents cannot operate in neutral waters.  Consequently, to make the blockade legal, the countries bordering the Strait of Malacca must explicitly support a blockade, becoming belligerents themselves.  While failing to gain Malaysia’s support would be a surmountable challenge – it might simply move the blockade 12 miles outside the straits into international waters –  Indonesia’s support will make or break a blockade.  Its archipelagic sea lanes (at least four basic routes) provide several corridors for blockade runners exploiting innocent passage.  Without Indonesian support, only a United Nations Security Council Resolution allows closure of these sea lanes, and China’s Security Council veto would never allow that.

Even setting legalities aside, a blockade of the Strait of Malacca would be a complicated undertaking. Given the vast quantity of traffic that transits these chokepoints—much of it bound for allied or neutral countries—traditional methods of visit and search are challenging.  Approximately 165 ships of all types transit the Strait of Malacca each day, of which 52 are oil tankers.  A blockader would need to investigate all appropriate ships, evaluate whether they were blockade runners, and seize those that were.  As many as thirteen warships would be required to enforce an oil blockade using traditional methods of visit and search .  This number does not allow for force protection, replacements for material failures or prize crews. Additional ships would have to guard other passages such as the Lombok/Makassar straits.  Increased insurance rates and risk-averse shippers would reduce that number of tankers destined for China; however, China’s large national fleet and other Chinese owned merchants would still sail, and China’s significant cash reserves could supplant traditional insurers.  As such, the operational commander would still need to dedicate a squadron of significant size to blockade, revealing a major opportunity cost.

It is possible to reduce this footprint if some measures are taken during peacetime (there is no time like the present).  Specific examples include development of procedures, relationships and technologies to establish a Navicert system for shipping and stand up land-based Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) teams from the Coast Guard and land forces.  A Navicert process is a prescreening of traffic at the port of embarkation previously used by the British during their blockades of Germany, which could make blockade inspections more efficient.  Combining a Navicert process with an electronic system such as the Automatic Identification System (an automated data system installed on all ships 300 tons or larger that reports a wealth of information) increases the potential for success.  A commander can use land based VBSS teams augmented with drones, helicopters and small boats to supplement warships in critical chokepoints, allowing precious destroyers and cruisers to assist in other efforts.  These capabilities would be difficult to develop “on the fly” in wartime, so capabilities and relationships should be fostered now to improve their effectiveness at the onset of hostilities.

The teeth of the endeavor would be a close blockade using assets that can survive and strike in an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) environment, which means that something like AirSea Battle might still be needed for a blockade to be effective and feasible).  The force commander could focus on Hong Kong, Shanghai and other major shipping hubs to begin with, while preparing to expand as China adapted.  This portion of the blockade would consist of submarines, mine warfare, and long range aircraft that would attack blockade runners that slipped through or around the chokepoints and entered a Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) defined by the coalition.  The MEZ would not need to be 100% impregnable, but a sufficient volume of traffic would need to be sunk to create a deterrent effect on potential blockade runners.  Traditional concepts of establishment, notification, effectiveness, impartiality and limitations would still apply to provide a legal, internationally acceptable basis for this second tier of the blockade.

The third level of blockade would be diplomatic efforts to stop oil transport at the supply side, focusing on convincing nations to support an oil embargo of China.  China gets most of its oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Oman, Angola, Sudan, and Kuwait. While many of China’s oil suppliers are antagonistic toward the United States, American allies such as Saudi Arabia who provide significant oil to China could be convinced to support a blockade.  As oil is a commodity, the United States would need to seek diplomatic support to find alternative customers for its allies (even to the extent of adding this Saudi oil to American strategic reserves).  Once some Chinese oil suppliers take their product off the market, nations not supporting an oil embargo of China would then be forced to create new facilities and infrastructure if they wished to supply a risky, temporary demand.

Overland Routes and Chinese Retaliation

While maritime blockade offers a strong possibility of success, Russia could decide to support China with oil over land routes.  However, Russia is limited in its ability to support China by their supply and other markets.  78% of Russia’s exported oil goes to stable, long term European markets.  Robbing these markets or overinvesting in production to support a massive surge in short term Chinese demand is not in the best interest of Russia’s oil oligarchs, even if it meant poking the United States in the eye.  Expanding infrastructure, specifically pipelines and railways, to support Chinese oil needs is also an expensive and time-consuming effort.  As such, Russia would have an uphill climb to validate such investment as part of their national interest.  Other overland routes need to be monitored for expansion, though unforgiving terrain, unfriendly nations and reliance on maritime transport reduce the efficacy of these alternate routes.

China  would have difficulty challenging a blockade through a major naval battle or convoy operations, due to its  limited capability to project sea control away from its home waters.  However, an operational commander must also consider China’s response, particularly the potential for asymmetric action.  Just like other naval operations, a blockade would rely on satellite coverage for communications and reconnaissance as well as digital data exchange to track blockade runners and operate a Navicert process.  This is all vulnerable to Chinese attacks with anti-satellite weapons and in cyberspace.  These actions may not be fatal to a blockade, but they would significantly increase the forces required and reduce capability to stop blockade runners.

While conducting this blockade, coalition forces must also prevent China from seizing disputed territory from allies such as the Senkaku Islands or Taiwan.  As stated earlier, continuing this fight would require operations in an A2/AD environment.  The United States also has to be prepared for a scenario where China achieves its objectives very quickly – say, seizing the Senkakus – and ceases combat operations.  Would  popular opinion and international consensus support excluding China after a quick and possibly bloodless seizure of some small islands?  At this point, a continued blockade would be seen as purely punitive, and international and domestic economic interests would pressure the United States to back down.


There is no way to fight an easy war against China.  China’s geographic advantages, niche military capabilities, economic interdependence and nationalistic populace will make any war costly, regardless of the strategy.  A blockade uniquely negates many of China’s strengths and capitalizes on its weaknesses, but China still retains many options to continue to fight and achieve its objectives. And a blockade would require significant military resources, time, and commitments from allies.

In addition, the United States cannot simply step outside China’s A2/AD’s range and blockade from a safe distance.  If China chose to continue the war despite initial economic repercussions, the United States would be forced to enter the A2/AD environment, both to establish an effective close blockade and to challenge China at decisive points to keep allies in the fight.  AirSea Battle may provide a solution to this, or another construct may need to be developed, but the United States still needs to understand how to operate in almost any environment should the military be called to.

Regardless, the problem of blockade is less of military feasibility and more of political will and economic sacrifice.  The interests of the United States may be best served by economic and diplomatic engagement with China; however, uncertain times and irreconcilable interests could still provoke a war that the United States needs a strategy for.  As such, the United States should not take any strategy off the table, particularly blockade.


Jason Glab has served eleven years as a submarine officer, conducting a Western Pacific deployment, two SSGN missions and two deterrence patrols.  He has also served as a naval analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency and is currently studying at the Naval War College.


U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeff Atherton

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19 thoughts on “Blockading China: A Guide

  1. Jason,

    The blockading of China may be an impossibility or at least completely impractical as China is capable of operating in all four domains of physical warfare (land, sea, air, space) as well as the so-called fifth and sixth domains (cyber as well as economic, propaganda etc).

    In short, if China is up against the wall, they have the capability to degrade or disrupt the international payments and settlements system. The target of such an attack would not be the macro level – rather the targets are at the micro level – you and your credit and debit cards etc etc. No gas at the store, no cash at the ATM.

    In short, the USA President would be trying to appear or be aggressive on the international scene while the home front economy crumbles and social unrests hits the streets.

    Methinks there will be a podcast here on WOTR that addresses this very issue shortly.

    1. Thanks for your points. It’s true that China has some significant capabilities in all the domains that you mention, but to have some strengths in these domains does not necessarily negate critical weaknesses.

      None of China’s capabilities you mention would break a blockade. Their symmetric capabilities (outside A2/AD coverage) are still limited compared to US forces, so China’s only really option to fight blockade is subversion (which still restricts flow of oil and economic goods) or escalation (such as “deleting” the US and world economy, which won’t buy China many friends in the post war environment).

      The “nuisance” attacks that you discuss are potent, but the US does have counters to these attacks. Nuisance attacks from various actors have occurred in the US, and none of them have resulted in much permanent harm. US government and private institutions restored from backups, developed counters and moved on with business. The largest cyber campaign to date didn’t cause lasting damage to Estonia and failed to stop Estonia’s political aim (even something as little as moving a statue). A massive, sudden offensive on the onset of conflict would have significant effect on the economy, but every singular attack designed to bring America to its knees has had less than stellar success. Long term adaptation, a US counter cyber offense, and shutting down China’s limited internet backbones would reduce the effectiveness of these attacks as the conflict progressed, all the while China continued to use up its limited supply of oil and disenfranchised their own growing middle class, reducing the power and long term acceptance of the CCP.

      Taking down ATM and Bank of America’s website for a few hours might be enough to kill America’s will, or a war actually impacting the lives of Americans may galvanize a willingness to fight. In the end, it still comes down to some very Clausewitz-ian points: What is the value of the object to both sides? Who can motivate their people the most? At what point will one’s side’s offense (even a cyber offense) reach culmination?

      Thanks again for your thoughts, looking forward to continue the conversation.

      1. Hi Jason,

        Interesting discussion!!

        The problem here is that the attacks will not be of the nuisance variety. We have allowed our fiat/digital economy in the advanced countries to migrate almost entirely over to the payments and settlements system. This means cash supply accounting for ATMs, but is also means a standstill in derivatives, check clearing, retail payments, credit card clearing, debit card clearing, securities exchange, foreign currency exchange, direct deposit payments etc etc.

        In other words, your credit card will not work at the pump, no prescription for your diabetic child at the pharmacy, no food at the grocery store, no booking travel tickets on line, no diesel for Walmart’s trucks – you get the picture.

        Interestingly enough, 47 million Americans are on food stamps – which is to say they depend on Uncle Sam for grocery money. They are given this money in the form of SNAP cards – which look and work a lot like a pre-paid credit/debit card. The system in run by commercial banks and it depends on ….. the payments and settlement system. That is right by the way. Forty seven million Americans depend on food stamps for their weekly groceries. Can you spell s-o-c-i-a-l u-n-r-e-s-t?

        How does a US President – or any other western leader – maintain an offensive posture overseas while facing a home front that is crumbling?

        There is no need for China to break the blockade. For them, if they are up against the wall, the best battle won is the battle not fought – this sort of takes us back to Sun Tzu again.

        This is not an offensive capability as they would suffer as well, but you do have to wonder which country would be best prepared to survive and remain socially stable under such circumstances. Just a SWAG on my part – but it looks 50/50 to me.

        For more on this see:

        1. It will be interesting to see what the third part in the series you link points to will say. It seems like it will talk about the counters that governments and institutions have to combat such capabilities.

          This interconnected, unsupervised digital network you discuss is quite the vulnerability, but it’s also one that is fleeting. Your example of 47 million people on food stamps is provocative, but I wonder how long that network would stay down once the combined talents of private, military and government cyber and financial specialist started cracking on it. Then, leadership mentions that China crashed the system to starve 47 million Americans, and you just secured a lot of American popular will angry at China.

          China would also have to deal with the repercussions of such an attack after the war was over. Would Americans still be willing to buy Chinese goods after such a war? Maybe (considering our perceived short memories). Would China be willing to risk sacrificing this future market by executing such an attack? Yes, if the survival of the CCP was at stake, probably not if it’s a territorial dispute over the Senkakus. While your example and my rebuttal are provocative, extreme cases that are great for illustration, the same parallels can be drawn from a pared down scenario. I wouldn’t want to give odds on who could maintain the support of the populace better as it would be very dependent on the context of the scenario, though I suspect that your 50/50 odds are not far off.

          An advantage of blockade as pointed out by T.X. Hammes is that it is slow, and gives lots of “off-ramps.” It avoids the “backs against the wall” scenario that you mention; as an oil shortage would have to go on very long in order to put the CCP at risk (vice being put in a position where they are just pressured). The Chinese could use the capabilities you discuss to exert similar costs on the American people that an oil shortage causes on China, but these financial attacks would be of diminishing returns as the financial system adapted. On the other hand, the effects of a loss of a commodity supply tend to be cumulative, with the effects getting worse as time goes on. Developing the offshore oil infrastructure to exploit captured territory is difficult, particularly when people are still shooting at you (it’s worth noting that Japan never really successfully exploited the resources they acquired in 1941-2, and modern demand makes WWII’s look like a drop in the bucket).

          Again, blockade only makes sense in limited scenarios. It would have little effect on a short war, so if the initial cyber volleys were successful to break popular will, a blockade would be moot just the same as if China’s A2/AD network waxed the floor with the JSDF and the 7th Fleet. But cyber shows diminishing returns, particularly if the physical infrastructure start being cut (again, going back to the relatively limited number of internet back bones going in/coming out of China). So after that, you have to pick a new strategy. I don’t think we want to do attrition against China (for obvious reasons), so blockade provides a reasonable alternative that should be kept in our back pocket.

          1. Hi Jason,

            Based on the comments generated by your article, you must have hit on something. This is good stuff as it encourages actual discussion – not the usual partisan bickering that has come to dominate the news and many other forums.

            As an aside, I was ASW back in a previous lifetime and spent most of the time frustrated by SS, SSN and SSBN boats that were so hard to track. I did once see a boomer surface in mid-ocean and watched it dive a few minutes later. Truly scary stuff to see a boomer up close and realize the awesome power these things have – and how **& hard they are to find our track.

            Anyway, the comments section of WOTR is a bit limited for this sort of discussion, but here is a couple of other points. American economic power (and therefore military power) is critically dependent on the US dollar being the world’s reserve currency. Today, there is not other country even remotely capable of challenging this head on. However, US policy decisions at the FED and in Congress are weakening that. The issue here is confidence and trust – something that cannot be fixed no matter how many bright people work towards that in the short term.

            I agree with you that China would suffer if they tried this. In the paper we note that it is a ‘capability’ but not an ‘intention’. China would not try this unless they were in real trouble.

            When would they try something like this? Well, if they were on the losing end of a blockade and were facing serious economic stress at home, then they might reach into the bag of tricks to find something – like a loss-of-confidence-attack.

            There is something about this that reminds me of the old Warsaw Pact-NATO war gaming. No matter how you game this out, it ends up with both sides getting hammered and no one winning.

    2. Why in the world would we even consider going to war with China over a few uninhibited rocks? We’re not talking an invasion of the Japanese homeland or something here. Japan should be told in no uncertain terms that they cannot expect our involvement if they choose to become involved in an escalation with China.

      This seems like the kind of scenario that armchair generals ( or more frighteningly, real generals) would engage in.

  2. Jason Glab has written an insightful analysis of a prospective oil blockade of China. Such a blockade by itself would very likely be insufficient to provide successful war termination leverage for the U.S. and its allies in the region.

    According to the Pentagon’s 2013 report on Chinese military power, the East China Sea near the Senkaku Islands is thought to contain 100 billion barrels of crude oil and seven trillion cubic feet of natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (cited by Glab), the South China Sea is thought to hold 60 years of crude oil and 30 years of natural gas for China’s expected future consumption.

    China’s seizure and exploitation of these hydrocarbon resources in its Near Seas would seem to solve its energy risk exposure and negate the effects of a distant U.S. oil blockade. Indeed, the imposition of such a blockade would create the casus belli China could use to seize these maritime territories, which it already claims as its long-standing territory.

    The build-out of China’s access denial military capability will by next decade make it very costly for U.S. Pacific Command to intervene in the Near Seas — at least under the Pentagon’s current program of record.

    Under this scenario, the U.S. and its allies would be compelled to extend a distant blockade to cover a broad range of commerce, not just crude oil. But this would be a huge operation, far beyond the ability of the U.S. Navy and PACOM to implement (consider those 165 ships that transit Malacca every day). It would also, as Glab points out, be very difficult to sustain politically, as it would position the U.S. as an aggressor against the global economy.

    With the captured Near Seas under the protection of China’s land-based access denial umbrella (which by next decade will extend 2,000 kilometers from China’s coast), the U.S. and its allies would have to resort to maritime irregular warfare and occasional sabotage in an attempt to thwart China’s exploitation of the Seas’ hydrocarbon resources. Such a maritime guerilla war likely would not be a war-winning strategy.

    The U.S. and its allies will thus need a much broader and more robust portfolio of capabilities (military and non-military) if they are to protect their interests and maintain stability in the region during the decade ahead.

    1. Hi Robert,

      I took the fast ferry from Tanah Merah Singapore to Malaysia a couple of times while working on a intelligence horizon scanning project at the Nanyang Tech University. The Straights of Malacca are fascinating to say the least. But as a former zoomie (naval aircrew) my own view is that it would be rather easy to close the straights. They are highly congested, the cargo ships are HUGE – way bigger than even aircraft carriers and the traffic moves at an amazing speed. Most interesting was that you can see from one side of the channel to the other – just a few NMs in a couple of areas. A non-conventional set of attacks would frighten the insurers into withdrawing the insurance on these vessels very quickly. The Straights of Hormuz come to mind here.

      Closing Malacca would not be that hard, but as you point out, the political costs of attempting to control maritime traffic in the South China Sea/Mallaca area would be huge and instantly unpopular. This by itself would put the entire blockade question into a difficult position.

  3. So, no navy experience here, but i see a lot of people talking about China’s A2/AD capabilities, and i assume specifically mean their antiship ballistic missiles,and how these forces us to undergo a long distance blockade…
    I’m wondering, what’s stopping us from declaring a “kill zone” around China’s coast, and saying any oil tanker caught inside is toast. Send in our Fast Attack subs,and we’re safe from A2/AD right? Just worry about their conventional fleet which i believe we are greatly superior too, right?

  4. There will be no war until China is ready for one. For them the best strategy is to have no war at all. So it all depends on the economy, if in 25 years they have an economy twice the size as that of the US, they will have a military twice as large as that of the US without even breaking a sweat. But that is a big if. The US needs to focus on its economy. On present trends in 25 years the entire US government budget will all go toward Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on debt.

  5. I think that, regardless of whether we get into a shooting war with China (hopefully not), we need to have a political message that clearly articulates our position regarding the disputes in the western Pacific. Specifically, we need to make a moral case for why China should not be allowed to unilaterally redraw the map of the region. If it was wrong for Japan to seize Manchuria in a war of aggression against China in the 1930s, then it is equally wrong for China to use its military muscle to intimidate and push around its weaker neighbors today. The average Chinese may be nationalistic, but a strong enough message centered on moral principle may override nationalist sentiment, or at least cause individuals to question their government’s course of confrontation with its neighbors. And even if such an appeal should fail, well it wouldn’t cost us anything to make it in the first place…and it may draw world opinion to sympathize more with our position, which will only help.

  6. If Jason Glab’s assumptions are implemented, a global economic collapse will come. Tns of thousands of China’s missiles will fall on Japan first, and the US will not be spared in the disaster. I suggest Jason read professor Zhu Chenghu’s notable comments, “if the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons,” and that “we… will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xi’an. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds … of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

    Hope your imagine will never come true. War with China for several rocks.

    1. You provide wise caution against war on China, and their “Total War” concept does present a picture of a frightening adversary. However, always consider that political leadership tends to restrain military strategy. Consider that MacArthur’s proposed military strategy against China in the Korean War was to use total blockade, deep strikes and nuclear weapons, all of which was rejected by Truman. The CCP is nothing if not strategic; they recognize that obliterating a major source of imports and exports (Japan) may not be in their long term interests, especially if such action alienates their other trade partners (US, EU, etc.). Unless the survival of China or the CCP was threatened, resorting to scorched earth of the world economic scene is more dangerous to China’s long term prosperity and survival than acquiescing to limited territorial claims.

      A strategy of blockade, as TX Hammes discusses, provides a gradually increasing pressure to the CCP that doesn’t immediately risk the survival of China and the CCP. It imposes costs on China that would likely not trigger a sudden escalation (because a blockade would not need to drop a single warhead on China’s territory, precluding the need to respond in kind), show the world community’s resolve to not accept resolution of territorial disputes before the barrel of a gun, and provide time to come to negotiated settlements.

      Of course, I recognize that the US’s prosperity is better served through mutual consensus with China and encouragement of peaceful resolution of territorial conflict between China and our closest allies. But if conflict does occur despite diplomacy’s and restraint’s best efforts, the prospect of having to chose between standing by longstanding allies or abandoning them is a false choice, and policy makers need to understand what tools are available and to what effect they can be used.

  7. The idea of using land-based VBSS teams as a way to more efficiently enforce this blockade made me immediately think of the new USMC rotational presence in Australia. This MAGTF could end up playing a big role in such a blockade thanks to the USMC investment in longer ranged aviation assets like the much maligned Osprey. Using forward deployed Marines in Australia and something along the lines of a MLP-AFSB could prove very effective in this part of the world.

  8. Jeff Atherton

    Man this article is spot on. This whole blockade vs ASB debate should not be a either or but a complimenting balance. ASB on its own used to win would be over escalatory and blockade on its own would leave US vulnerable to a forward leaning escalatory Chinese actions. A balanced approach using both the blockade to pressure and the ASB to protect allies negate Chinese gains and be the escalatory screw we could turn without having to go nuclear.

    Money Quote:
    “In addition, the United States cannot simply step outside China’s A2/AD’s range and blockade from a safe distance. If China chose to continue the war despite initial economic repercussions, the United States would be forced to enter the A2/AD environment, both to establish an effective close blockade and to challenge China at decisive points to keep allies in the fight. AirSea Battle may provide a solution to this, or another construct may need to be developed, but the United States still needs to understand how to operate in almost any environment should the military be called to.”

  9. While the article offers intriguing analysis in to the ‘what if’, I find it quite provocative and a bit of a let down, particularly in a post Cold War world where China should not be treated as another Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or Soviet Union.

    But if the cat is out of the bag, then here is my two cents: the US Navy in reality and practice will not have the resources to sustain such a blockade without help. It is a lot of ocean to cover. It will need considerable buy in from Taiwan plus US allies and partners in the region. While on paper the US alliance already forms the perfect infrastructure for a blockade, the reality would be difficult if US allies and partners waiver because they are unwilling to go to war against China in a grand blockade coalition.

    China’s land routes, while cannot be depended on, would remain operating (i.e. Russia, Central Asia and Myanmar pipelines). To totally starve China of fuel would require either hard diplomacy to ensure bordering allies cut supplies (unlikely) or attack the supply lines themselves (which would likely ensue into direct attacks against Chinese targets).

    Blockades are old school. They could have won the war against Japan, yes, without necessitating the use of nuclear weapons. But the harsh reality would be that if you push China into a corner and offer it virtually no other option but to negotiate or to resort to its nuclear weapons, then the face saving Communist regime would be very tempted to resort to nuclear weapons. The US would be playing a very dangerous game.

    A blockade assumes that the US has total freedom in its movements, absolute military dominance, and the luxury of making a preemptive move. The reality would be that if in a shooting war the Chinese strike first, then US infrastructure needed to sustain an effective blockade, i.e. air bases and naval facilities in the Western Pacific, would likely be neutralized by Chinese air and missile attacks. In other words, the blockade is totally offensive when resources should be better spent on defending US assets in the Western Pacific and to ensure their survival against the initial onslaught of Chinese strikes/retaliation.

    This leads to my final point: if the US is engaged in war with China, all cards are on the table short of resorting to WMD, and the US wants to defeat China quickly, a blockade should be substituted by a decisive naval engagement.

    A blockade only fractures and stretches US naval resources and will require a lot of time to plan and coordinate. This leaves US naval assets and infrastructure vulnerable during the time of forming up a blockade to asymmetric warfare and harrying attacks. And what would prevent the PLAN/PLAAF from deciding to form up and concentrate its efforts to neutralize one point of the blockade (i.e. targeting a CVBG), inflict severe casualties which might just convince the US public to sue for peace?

    A decisive engagement, on the other hand, will ensure the US has strength in numbers and will draw the PLAN/PLAAF into a battle where the USN and USAF will have quite an advantage: the art of fleet/combined warfare whereas there is still serious doubt as to whether the PLAN/PLAAF can organize a large scale combined arms military operation beyond its shores. Destroying the PLAN and PLAAF, or at least the bulk of their strength, in a swift but single engagement would be a better use of resources than a slow, costly blockade.

    Finally, like all blockades, they can be broken. One should watch Star Wars Episode I. The blockade of Naboo was broken by a small child in a fighter going “pew pew pew” and “boom”.

  10. Jason Glab,you sound like A PRECURSOR to your ROMAN COLLAPSE, DEMISE, or at least facilitating your beloved Roman Empire toward demise. May I remind you even if you team up with chicken shit like Japs, K-pop, Taiwan traitors, filipinos who by the way all advanced their stoneage country into civilized country, United whimps that you are can never blockade Russian coastlines. China will have free access to operate from Russian coasts. Your greatest archilles’ heel also sit right smack in the middle of your homeland too, YELLOW STONE CAULDERA, what makes you think PLA would not trigger it to erupt, & when it does, say goodbye to your economy & civilization b/c is all MADMAX thereafter. Take on giants like Russia & China and you’ll be toast just like Hitler! Your superiority complex is getting old & lame, China as a civilization has survived 5000 years of difficulties & she will survive to see another Western imminent downfall just like your Roman ancestors.

  11. Jason Glab, before You wanna takes us on lets examine who invented the firearm your GI is holding, who introduced the rudder to your sitting duck carriers,who wrote ART OF WAR? Think your meager annual 2% GDP country can handle 100 of trillions of war campaign against a giant, or likly a twin giant(Russia included)? Think you still have that WW2 1 in a trillion luck of having your north American continent not submit to harm? Think you can walk away from borrowed $$$ & flip your middle finger @ lenders China & Russia unscathed? Then give your best shot PUNK, the West is likened to a dire wolf, preying on the weak ie Iraq. Yeah your white & black family may dominate in sissy sports like basketball, football,golf etc. but CHINESE excel in the ULTIMATE SPORT: WAR!!!!