This morning I read an article in which the author, Sean Mirski, sketched out a scenario in which a naval blockade could be a decisive tool in a hypothetical future war with China. The general idea is that, with China relying so heavily on its exports, cutting off trade would cripple its economy and thus force it to ask for terms rather than continue the fight. Economic siege warfare.
I read on, all the while waiting for what seemed to me to be the inevitable counterpoint to this strategy, and yet it never appeared. I am speaking, of course, of the economic damage that those conducting and enforcing the blockade, and indeed the world at large, would also suffer from such an undertaking.
I lived for five years in Salem, Massachusetts. While most people associate this historic New England city with the infamous witch trials of 1692, it is far less commonly known that it was a world-class seaport and a major center for the China trade in the18th century. Salem is famous the world over for its Late Georgian and Federal-style architecture, mainly built by wealthy merchants and sea captains at height of Salem’s prosperity. Walking through the McIntire District or along the waterfront, you see just how much things were booming there.
Starting in 1807, however, a series of trade embargoes between Britain, France, and the United States, part of which would contribute to the grievances that kicked off the War of 1812, destroyed the trade-reliant economy of Salem. By the time the ports were re-opened to trading, Salem had been knocked off its pedestal by other ports such as New York. It never fully returned to its former glory.
Although I agree that a blockade of China’s trade routes would be an effective means of forcing a peace if a conflict erupted, we need to recognize why that is: that China is heavily reliant upon exporting their goods because so much of the world is heavily reliant upon importing their goods. This turns a blockade on China less into an economic siege and more into an economic game of bloody knuckles.
Who do you think could hold out longer? I’m honestly not sure. I am sure, however, that one cannot successfully mount a siege that does equal (or greater) damage to yourself as to your enemy.