Baker Institute expert: Idea of maritime oil blockade against China ‘strategically flawed’

The political, economic and financial considerations of sustaining an oil blockade against China mean that even a militarily successful blockader could find its position untenable well before a blockade could achieve its full impact, according to an expert in the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

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With a long-term trend of rising United States-China tensions and China’s growing dependence on imported crude oil to underpin its economic growth, the idea of distant energy blockades has received significant attention as a potential tool for deterring, coercing or terminating conflict with China, said Gabriel Collins, the Baker Botts Fellow in Energy and Environmental Regulatory Affairs at the Baker Institute. Collins outlined his insights in a new paper for the Naval War College Review, titled “A Maritime Oil Blockade Against China — Tactically Tempting but Strategically Flawed.”

“Neutral countries as well as U.S. allies would pressure Beijing and Washington strongly to end the conflict quickly, even in a distant-blockade scenario that focused on oil alone,” Collins wrote. “The pressure likely would be exponentially stronger in scenarios in which Chinese maritime trade was interdicted more broadly, which likely would be the actual case. Under either scenario, as the blockade wore on, the U.S. position outside the military domain would weaken progressively — most likely at a rate that exceeded the speed at which the blockade was pushing China toward termination of the conflict.”

Collins’ article examines in greater detail the nonmilitary means China likely would employ in response to a maritime oil blockade and the effects of these approaches.

“When assessing a potential military approach, one must appreciate its strengths, weaknesses and inherent limits,” Collins wrote. “An oil blockade is not itself a strategy; rather, it is an action appropriately subsumed into a larger economic, diplomatic and military campaign. It is also an action that in physical, trade-warfare terms would be akin to a nuclear strike on the global economy. An open military conflict between the United States and China would be a globally cataclysmic event on many levels. Furthermore, physically interdicting one of the largest channels in the global oil trade — and with it, major parts of the Chinese economy — very likely would open a Pandora’s box of unforeseen secondary and tertiary adverse consequences whose effects could be worse than even the most pessimistic analyses might suggest.”

Collins said history strongly suggests that even if a potential foe appears vulnerable to over-the-horizon pressure on its seaborne commerce, a blockade never should be substituted for war or a campaign strategy. “As U.S. policymakers contemplate options for potential conflict with China, they forget this lesson at their peril,” he wrote.

Collins conducts a range of globally focused commodity market, energy, water and environmental research. His current research focuses on oil field water issues, groundwater valuation in Texas, evolutions in the global gasoline market, shifts in China’s domestic oil consumption structure, Texas water governance and the food-water-energy nexus.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.