The Maritime Rung on the Escalation Ladder: Naval Blockades in a US-China Conflict

Neither China nor the United States might be willing to risk nuclear war to achieve their limited political aims in future conflicts over Taiwan, North Korea, or disputed maritime territories. US leaders might therefore opt for a naval blockade of Chinese merchant shipping to coerce China to end a future limited war, judging that a blockade poses a lower risk of nuclear escalation than conventional strikes on the Chinese mainland and lower costs than directly engaging Chinese air and naval forces off China’s shores. Despite a lively debate about the merits of a blockade in future US-China conflict scenarios, naval blockades have been largely overlooked in international relations scholarship on the conflict escalation ladder for great power war in the nuclear era. Scholars also have not sufficiently scrutinized the feasibility of a blockade and China’s military plans to respond to it. Naval blockades preserve key escalation thresholds in limited conflicts and provide warring parties with time to negotiate an end to the conflict. US-led maritime interception operations in the past suggest that a blockade of Chinese merchant shipping designed to minimize escalation risks is feasible. But the campaign would place severe demands on US naval forces and require extensive support from other countries. Chinese-language materials suggest Beijing could respond to a blockade with intentional escalation using nonnuclear weapons, which may be preferable to inadvertent nuclear use that could result from a US attack on the Chinese mainland.

Fiona Cunningham is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University and a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2020-1. Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology and conflict, with an empirical focus on China. Fiona’s current book project explains how and why China threatens to use space weapons, cyber attacks and conventional missiles as substitutes for nuclear threats in limited wars. Her research has appeared in International Security, Security Studies, and The Texas National Security Review. She has received support from the Stanton Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation, and China Confucius Studies Program. Fiona has held fellowships at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Fiona received her Ph.D. in 2018 from the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and International Relations from the University of New South Wales and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Sydney, both with first-class honors.