Deterring the Dragon … From (Under) the Sea

Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute
February 2014
Vol. 140/2/1,332

If the United States wants to prevent China from flexing its military muscle and disrupting the status quo it should adopt and advance a subsurface strategy.

China and the United States may—or, it is hoped, may not—enter into armed conflict in the future. Given China’s rise in economic and military power, it would actually be historically expected for these two great powers to one day fight one another at least on some level. This dynamic is often referred to as the Thucydides Trap: “When a rapidly rising power rivals an established ruling power, trouble ensues. In 11 of 15 cases in which this has occurred in the past 500 years, the result was war.” 1

The goal of American military strategy should be to maintain the favorable-to-the-United States status quo without resorting to conflict. America should strive to deter military action by potential adversaries since ascendant powers often win these conflicts. The key military question of our time, then, is what U.S. military strategy would deter China from seeking to use military force to change the geopolitical status quo?

The answer to this question should not be based on tactical assessments of current or even projected U.S. forces and doctrine against their Chinese counterparts. This is the arena, however, where most military discussions unfortunately and unproductively seem to occur. Developing an effective national military strategy to deter conflict must begin with an honest and blunt assessment of history as well as one’s own and one’s adversary’s strategic goals, capabilities, and weaknesses—not weapons platforms, tactics, and doctrine.



At the outset of hostilities, the United States would first announce a total maritime exclusion zone extending at least 200 miles off the Chinese coast and around Taiwan. Any vessels entering this zone would be subject to boarding, internment, or even sinking if deemed hostile or simply in violation of the exclusion zone. This is similar to what the British effectively did in the 1982 Falklands campaign.

Second, the United States would specify that our forces will immediately begin extensive mining of the zone, especially Chinese ports, with submarines, aircraft, cruise missiles, and drones. All merchant vessels would be advised not to depart any Chinese port while those already within the zone would be advised to leave it along published, narrow, safe-passage exit corridors. Even with a limited number of submarines and stealthy long-range bombers or drones, enough mining near port areas could rapidly halt most Chinese maritime commerce.

The Chinese would not even know the extent of the mining operation because much of it could be delivered via subsurface methods. One great strength of subsurface warfare is that it is extremely difficult for the defender to know just how dangerous the threat is because it can’t observe the activity. Simply barging through mined areas can result in vessel sinkings, which can in turn block critical ports or channels. The defender, then, is forced to engage in slow, careful, and laborious mine clearing, losing operational speed and all-important initiative. 8

Third, the American government would declare that U.S. financial institutions and courts may not enforce or pay any insurance claims, trade credit, or similar financial instruments for commercial vessels that were judged—by the sole discretion of the United States—as operating in the exclusion zone for commercial or any other purpose with China. Military analysis almost always underestimates the power of U.S. financial or legal actions to alter, or even halt, commercial maritime traffic, actions that would be a very powerful weapon with respect to China. It doesn’t even matter if the proclamation would be legal: The possibility that it could be enforced would make worldwide insurers or banks order their captains to halt movement into the area or risk major financial loss. The United States should use its hard-won worldwide financial hegemony to enhance its military strategies of deterrence.


Read the Full Strategy Paper HERE.