Retired US Navy captain and political scientist Bradford Dismukes has proposed an interesting method for curtailing China’s regional militaristic ambitions in the event of conflict: strangle the economy, something that would also have a dramatic impact on Australia’s own economy.
When conflict broke out between Germany and the British Empire as part of the First World War, the British had a powerful strategy for crippling the might of German industry and, by extension, its war effort: blockade.
Using the power of the then peerless Royal Navy, the British blockade of critical raw materials, food stuffs and medical supplies served to dramatically hinder the German war effort over the long-term and served to have a lasting impact on the German psyche, so much so that when Hitler's Reich turned its attention to the West it utilised a fleet of submarines to turn the tables.
Today, as the world's two pre-eminent superpowers square up in the opposing corners of the vast Pacific Ocean, the concept of a blockade is emerging as a powerful concept for limiting the capability of the Chinese economy to support the People's Liberation Army conducting offensive operations in the event of conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
For Australia, such a blockade would add further pressure to the nation's economy, which has, like many global exporting economies, been decimated by the impact of COVID-19 and increased economic coercion at the hands of a displeased Beijing.
As Australia's economy limps toward its first recession in 30 years, the idea of contributing to the further throttling of our economic growth and directly targeting our major economic partner may spell doom, and rightfully so, however the proposition of retired US Navy captain turned political scientist Bradford Dismukes should prompt broader efforts to reform the national economy.
Establishing his theory, Dismukes states in a detailed analysis piece entitled'Global Blockade vs. China', "Globalisation has made China, a great continental power, dependent on the use of the sea and thus vulnerable to coercion from the sea."
Adding to this, Dismukes says, "Should there be war, the US and its allies should declare a blockade on China and enforce it through all available civil and military, primarily naval, means. Blockade aims to produce coercive effects on China’s behaviour at the level of national strategy. That is the end sought."
The US Navy is without a doubt the world's premier global navy, able to enforce its will, project power, influence and presence virtually unilaterally across the world's oceans without peer, and as was recently recognised by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Michael Gilday, "In broad theoretical terms, naval forces exist [in part to] prevent an adversary’s seaborne movement of commerce and military forces."
However even the US Navy would be unable to maintain the enormity of the blockade proposed by Dismukes, and would require the assistance of allies seeking to limit active belligerence or disruptive combat in the the region, Australia in particular has a lasting vested interest in maintaining both the regional and global economic, political and strategic status quo.
In spite of this, Dismukes articulates the myriad ways in which he envisages the US Navy and by extension, allies including Australia, Japan and South Korea would operate in order to enforce any such blockade, namely combining naval power and key platforms to effectively choke off the convoys of raw materials, resources, energy and agricultural goods flowing by sea to China.
In light of this, Dismukes explains the growing need for the US to rally both neutral and allied consensus to the concept of a blockade in the event of hypothetical conflict with Beijing, stating, "In the hypothetical case at hand, a big war that has been started by China, many states will suffer. Few will prosper. The attitudes of most states toward the warring parties will be formed to some degree by who they think is responsible for the war, but far more by who they think is going to win it.
"That being the case, the US should mount a vigorous campaign to gain neutral and promote allied support for its wartime blockade, while minimising, as much as possible, negative economic effects on third parties.
"There should be no limits on the geographic scope and nature of blockade-enforcement actions. The US and its allies would interdict Chinese seaborne trade as well as all air traffic. Maritime states whose geography might permit them to serve as ‘blockade-busters’ would become targets of US diplomacy and, if necessary, coercive action, including via interdiction of their seaborne trade."
Expanding on this, Dismukes explains the two phases that would be required to effectively complete the naval blockade of China, stating, "US carriers would be heavily employed in the war’s initial period in sweeping the seas of enemy civil ships of all types, as well as any naval forces that might try to protect them.
"Given the large size of the Chinese merchant and fishing fleets this might not be a brief process. Subsequent patrol of the world ocean to ensure that the [blockade-enforcement] vice remains tightly closed might be left mainly to allied navies, freeing US carriers for other tasks," Dismukes added.
Following the initial phases of the blockade operation, Dismukes believes both US and allied submarines would play a critical role in enforcing the blockade, while the limited reach of Beijing's growing bomber and strategic missile forces would hinder the capacity of the Chinese to respond beyond a strategic nuclear strike thus risking a response in kind.
Further to this, Dismukes draws critical parallels to the similar allied blockade operations against Germany during the First World War and their impact on Germany's technological development, explaining, "With the co-operation of the host countries, the US and its allies would sequestrate all Chinese-owned properties in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
"This last would be a post-colonial version of the Allies’ seizure during World War I of Germany’s colonies, German East Africa, German Southwest Africa, and Cameroon. Chinese-owned factories and agricultural enterprises would continue to operate but exclusively for the benefit of the host country. Chinese construction projects might be continued, where possible, under Western aegis.
"Finally, blockade would involve severance of China’s financial and technological links with the world. The US and its allies would force China to rely mainly on indigenous means to compete for technological superiority."
Impacts for Australia
Australia's dependence upon China is by now well known, particularly as the nation scrambles to adjust to blatant threats of economic coercion in the aftermath of Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling for an independent and international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 following its cost of life and continuing impact on the global economy.
COVID-19 also served to dramatically highlight the lack of true economic sovereignty and resilience within the national economy, as well as the impact the nation's limited economic diversity has upon national security.
This is best articulated by Peter Hartcher, writing for The Sydney Morning Herald, who has called for Australia to avoid blindly following attempts by the US to contain China, while also avoiding kowtowing to the increasing antagonism and bullying tactics of the rising superpower.
Hartcher comes to the conclusion some prominent members of the Commonwealth government have come to, when he articulates: "Indeed, Australia should embrace a full work program of measures to protect its democracy from Xi's efforts at influence and interference.
"The Morrison government has only just started to enforce its foreign interference laws – the investigation into NSW Labor politician Shaoquett Moselmane is its first such effort.
"Other vital measures await. These include tightening Australia's absurdly ramshackle political donations laws, introducing security screening for new MPs and senators, and developing a national resilience agenda.
"Australia's vulnerability to China for critical medical supplies has been newly exposed, for instance. So, too, its over-reliance on China as an export market."
This point is further enhanced by a poignant and timely question raised by senator for NSW, retired Major General and long-time advocate for a holistic National Sovereignty Strategy, Jim Molan, AO, DSC, who recently told Sky News:
"The point that I make is that if we need to put $270 billion over the next 10 years into defence, what other parts of our society, of our nation do we need to address to match whatever this $270 billion is going to buy us in the end?
"The basis for our national security is the economy. The problem I have is how does a government know risks it is taking by not funding certain aspects of national security, if it doesn’t know what we absolutely need?"
Australia is defined by its economic and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the 21st century’s era of great power competition and global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.