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China's Maritime Control

China's Maritime Control

Recent supply-chain woes pale in comparison to the havoc China could wreak on international commerce in the event of war over Taiwan. The United States is badly in need of a strategy.

Matthew Suarez
The oceans connect global markets, provide essential resources, and link societies together. By value, 90 percent of global trade travels by sea, facilitating $5.4 trillion of U.S. annual commerce and supporting 31 million American jobs. Undersea cables transmit 95 percent of international communications and roughly $10 trillion in financial transactions each day.
Advantage at Sea, the tri-service maritime strategy of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard

In recent years, there has been much loose talk about the United States going to war with China. Yet most commentary displays very little consideration of the impact such a conflict would have upon the national and international economy.

The turmoil caused by supply-chain disruptions and inflation in the United States demonstrates how heavily the country’s economic security and sociopolitical stability depend on the smooth functioning of the global trading system. Americans like consumer abundance and low prices, naturally, and they tend to express those preferences at the polls. Protecting the global trading system is so vital to U.S. national interests that it belongs to the realm of national policy rather than strictly in the realm of military and naval strategy.

Our military strategists have yet to fully grasp this. In December 2020, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard laid out their tri-service maritime strategy in Advantage at Sea. The three services identify the People’s Republic of China as a “determined rival” and “the most pressing long-term strategic threat” to the United States. Since the document’s publication, tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan have only heightened, to the extent that within the United States there is a sense of expectation of conflict.

A maritime war between the world’s two biggest powers would necessarily derange international trade—the vast majority of which travels by sea—on a colossal scale. The three sea services acknowledge the importance of international trade to the economic welfare and security of the United States (though they might have added that China, too, is dependent upon foreign trade and one of the United States’ largest trading partners). Yet they say nothing, at least publicly, about the connection between the two. Advantage at Sea raises the subject only to dismiss its significance by remarking that trade protection and the interdiction of “adversary war materials and commerce” would be the wartime task of “allies and partners.” In other words, the most powerful navy in the world proposes to farm out the defense of its own economy and rely on less powerful navies to attack the enemy’s.

This is remarkable. All recent history shows that when two countries wage maritime war, they do their utmost to sever their enemy’s trading links with the outside world. Indeed, we have three very recent examples that have made the importance of economic interdiction in maritime war that much more apparent to students of sea power.

The first lesson came with the coronavirus pandemic, when supply-chain disruptions were severe enough to cause politicians across the country to pledge to “secure” supply chains for their constituencies. The second lesson came in March 2021, when the Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal and blocked this main artery of international trade for ten days. In both cases, no one was trying to sabotage anything or deliberately make matters worse, unlike in times of war.

Third, the war in Ukraine further highlighted the vulnerability of supply chains that stretch over the sea – or under it as in the case or the Nord Stream gas pipeline. In fact, Russia’s actions in the Black Sea have supplied an object lesson in sea power by denying Ukrainian grain to the global market. Global food prices remain volatile and sensitive, regardless of the fragile grain deal brokered by the United Nations. Perhaps the most important takeaway from the Ukrainian grain crisis is that trains, airplanes, and canals are no substitute for maritime transportation.

As bad as the economic consequences of Russian actions have been, they are nothing compared to the likely consequences of maritime war between China and the United States. What would happen to the world economy if mines were strewn about the straits of Hormuz, Suez, Gibraltar, Malacca, Panama, and Dover? Can we even imagine the economic devastation consequent to the blockage of multiple trade routes for a sustained period of time?

Four Strategic Considerations

The United States must take commerce interdiction and protection seriously. There is no way to prevent a maritime war between the United States and China from massively deranging the global economy: the forces in play are simply too large and too complex to control. But it is possible to be more or less prepared. To formulate a commerce protection and interdiction strategy under modern conditions, maritime strategists and politicians would do well to investigate four relevant areas.

First, any attempt by China or the United States to interfere with the other’s trade would cause collateral economic damage to neutrals, given how interconnected the global economy is. It would be naive in the extreme, and totally at odds with the experience of history, to expect allies and neutrals alike simply to comply with U.S. Navy directives. The United States, after all, loudly protested collateral damage to its interests in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and in World War I. By the same token, the Navy should not expect American businesses to take any more kindly to collateral damage to their interests caused by regulation intended to damage Chinese interests. Any such regulation is almost certain to generate serious political, diplomatic, and economic blowback by all stakeholders–foreign and domestic.

Further complicating this picture is China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has created infrastructure enabling China to import much of what it needs by land. What could the United States do to stop neutral countries from trading on behalf of China with the rest of the world, as Holland and Sweden did for Germany during the World War I? The reality is that to be able to generate economic pressure against China, the United States must obtain commercial, domestic, and international buy-in to minimize neutral trade. Nominally American corporations with branches across the globe have interests that transcend borders, and their loyalties may not be so clear when their vested interests and profits are at stake.

Second, we must understand the scale, nature, and ownership of the international trade infrastructure. Setting aside the movement of oil and bulk commodities, most internationally traded goods travel in one of six million containers transported in approximately 61,000 ships. This flow of goods depends on an equally robust parallel flow of digital information. The stability of the global economic system requires the unfettered flows of trade and data. Damming either for any length of time risks widespread economic chaos, bringing with it social and political unrest.

China wields disproportionate power over the infrastructure through which international trade flows, which consists of much more than ships and goods. China operates one of the world’s largest merchant fleets; it is the world’s largest shipbuilder and port operator; it dominates marine finance and insurance; and it is the source of over 97 percent of all standardized international shipping containers.

Official statistics conceal the magnitude of China’s control over maritime infrastructure. European commercial fleets flying flags of convenience are in truth Chinese-owned. China owns numerous major container ports across the globe, notably in Europe, and it has begun to invest heavily in undersea cable technology.

What if China decided to weaponize its dominance over this infrastructure, as Britain did in World War I? Such a campaign is likely to involve much more than ships stopping other ships. It could extend to denying access to Chinese-owned merchant ships, containers, ports, marine finance and insurance, cables, and satellites. In other words, it could target the virtual world of information and services alongside the physical world of ships and cargoes. The global economic damage caused by Russia’s chokehold over grain and energy flows pales in comparison to the upheaval that could result from the imagined scenario.

Third, we must think much more broadly about cyberwar in the maritime context given the dependence of international trade upon data flows. Most data flows through undersea fiber-optic cables. In a sense, data has become the linchpin of the entire global economic system. The dependence on the virtual world is partly psychological: Confidence in information is central to the consistency and fidelity of commerce. Going after the cables through which data flows is one way to undermine confidence.

Another way is to attack the data itself through disinformation campaigns—targeting economic information such as ship manifests, property ownership, maritime insurance rates and clauses, container ports, and mapped trade routes and flow, to name a few essentials. The effects could be as powerful as the physical interdiction of a ship. Data to facilitate transactions is not the only point of vulnerability. Ports around the world, especially container ports, are becoming increasingly reliant on automation, and are thus exposed to cyberattack.

How well positioned is the United States to control or even access this sort of strategically critical information? The situation does not look good. China’s Shanghai Westwell Information and Technology Company Ltd. is rapidly becoming the leading vendor for automated intelligence port operating systems. China’s Ministry of Transportation also oversees the Public Information Platform for Transportation and Logistics, or Logink, which obtains data from public information, Chinese domestic ports, and dozens of major ports globally. The Chinese government’s control over Logink gives it privileged access to shipping patterns and flow across the globe that could be exploited to China’s benefit and to the detriment of those who communicate over those networks. Conversely, China’s new data security law is making it harder for foreign entities to get information on activity within Chinese waters.

Fourth and finally, if kinetic action is a consideration, then a blockade in the traditional, legal sense is not an option—the U.S. Navy simply does not have the resources to conduct such a campaign against so large a country as China—and thus the United States needs to think imaginatively about how it could apply economic pressure against China. The Navy would be spread much too thin to contend with China’s area-access/area-denial capabilities, its 5,600-ship merchant fleet, and its approximately 350 warships, not to mention its 9,000-mile-long coastline with countless ports. Even if it wanted to, the Navy has neither enough ships nor sufficient munitions (including reserves) to sink large numbers of enemy commercial ships as it did during World War II.

Thinking Big

When confronted with the complexity of a modern maritime commercial campaign and potential economic devastation, it is tempting to pretend that the problem does not exist. This approach was tried before World War I; it did not prevent a global war that ended the first era of globalization.

Today, in the second era of globalization, a war between the two largest economies in the world would also have rippling consequences across the globe. A new era of economic autarky could begin. A global economic collapse is a possibility that must be considered. The implications for incomes and standards of living in the United States need to be considered; they seem likely to fall significantly.

If the greatest risk for a maritime war with China is believed to be within the next six years then the United States is well behind in making preparations. The strategic planning and political coordination necessary for trade protection and interdiction is a massive undertaking. There must be unified collaboration among numerous federal agencies—State, Commerce, Agriculture, Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve, and the armed services—and the United States must also coordinate with international stakeholders, governments, and militaries, too.

A commerce protection and interdiction strategy must consider the global economic trade system in its entirety. No single federal entity can tackle such an enormous task alone, and a purely military approach would jeopardize the chances for success. The issues at stake are so fundamental to America’s national security–and indeed our entire way of life–that it behooves the United States to take the lead in formulating such a strategy. There’s no time to waste.

Matthew Suarez is a First Lieutenant, AH-1Z helicopter pilot in the United States Marine Corps. He anticipates his next deployment to be in the Pacific. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the policy, opinion, or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Department of Defense, or any other organization.

Image: The USS Roosevelt (DDG 80) conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the French replenishment oiler FS Marne (A630), Nov. 28, 2022. (U.S. Navy)

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