Defense Experts: U.S. at Grave Risk of “Sea Strangulation” by China, other Foreign Powers
New Study Says a Lack of U.S.-Flagged Merchant Ships Will Harm America’s Military and Economic Security
The United States has never been so dependent on imports and exports delivered by ship as we are today, and never has the nation had fewer of its own ships to carry goods
“China, through a strategy we call ‘Sea Strangulation,’ now has the capability to crash the U.S. economy, threaten our allies and hold our military hostage”
News Release from Hawaii Pacific University November 19, 2015
HONOLULU – Earlier this year, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China clinked glasses with the President of the United States at a state dinner in Washington. Today, two experts on China and sea power are warning in a new report of a potential clash between China and the United States on the high seas. “Sea Strangulation: How the United States has Become Vulnerable to Chinese Maritime Coercion,” authored by political scientist and expert on ‘coercive diplomacy’ Dr. Patrick Bratton, along with a historian on sea power, retired U.S. Navy Captain Carl Schuster, both of Hawai`i Pacific University, details a challenge from China the U.S. is ill-prepared to meet. The paper outlines serious threats to U.S. civilians and military personnel as a result of an over-dependence on the ships of other nations, in particular China, and simultaneous vulnerability caused by a dearth of American-flagged vessels in international trade.
The U.S. Merchant Marine now numbers less than 100 vessels in international trade. These privately-owned ships, flying under the U.S. flag, play a key role in supplying our armed forces overseas and delivering commercial goods at home. Ninety percent of the equipment and material used by the U.S. military in recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was carried on these vessels.
The People’s Republic of China, by contrast, has nearly doubled its commercial fleet since 2010 with more than 3,900 ships now flying the Chinese flag.
With expanding military as well as commercial power, say Bratton and Schuster, an increasingly hostile China can use its growing domination of global shipping to enforce its strategic and military objectives:
China now has the potential to implement a strategy we call “Sea Strangulation,” cutting off the supply of critical military and civilian goods. China could severely damage the U.S. economy, threaten our allies, hold our military hostage and deny critical supplies to Americans in locations such as Hawai’i without firing a single shot.
The U.S. Navy is at its lowest fleet strength since 1917, and America’s merchant marine is smaller than at any time since the Spanish-American war. As a result, say Bratton and Schuster, the United States is especially vulnerable to hostile actions by a foreign power, including:
- Refusal to carry supplies to U.S. troops during a future military or foreign policy crisis
- Refusal to supply U.S. strategic allies
- Denying access to critical vessels, such as Arctic icebreakers, owned and operated by Russia -- which operates 41 icebreakers, including a nuclear powered vessel; the United States, by contrast, only has two
- Banning – or threatening to ban – commercial shipments to U.S. overseas states and territories, such as Hawai’i, Alaska, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. (In Hawai’i, for example, local food supplies would last about ten days in the event of an embargo)
- Shutting down commercial trade and punishing the United States by creating “no go zones” for commercial vessels or simply ordering Chinese vessels not to service U.S. ports
Despite these critical vulnerabilities, the authors note, some special interests in Puerto Rico and elsewhere are pushing hard to modify or completely eliminate the Jones Act and the U.S. Maritime Security Program (MSP), which together provide incentives for private companies to build, operate and maintain U.S. ships flying under the U.S. flag.
The Jones Act requires goods shipped from one U.S. port to another to use U.S.-flagged ships. Critics claim this inflates shipping costs because U.S.-flagged ships pay better wages and must follow stricter environmental and safety regulations that ships flying “flags of convenience.” These ships are owned in one country but registered in another – typically, countries with low wages and lax regulation, such as the Cayman Islands, Liberia, Mongolia or Myanmar.
U.S.-flagged ships, however, are more efficient and better suited for modern intermodal transportation, say Bratton and Schuster, who also point out that the U.S. General Accounting Office in 2013 studied the expense of shipping goods on U.S.-flagged ships to Puerto Rico and was unable to substantiate claims of higher costs.
While cost figures are in dispute, say Bratton and Schuster, it is indisputable that cutting back on the Maritime Security Program and America’s commercial shipbuilding capacity reduces the ships, supplies and manpower the U.S. might need to address a military or foreign policy crisis:
The U.S.-flagged ships plying U.S. waters create a corps of trained officers and seamen, who are ready to serve our nation in times of national emergency. Likewise, on-shore industries like shipbuilding, repair and maintenance play valuable roles for national security during times of crisis… Our nation could also find itself unable to have crews trained and prepared to provide crucial military supplies and logistics during an armed conflict.
“The best and perhaps the only way we can counter the threat of Sea Strangulation is to strengthen and expand the United States’ merchant marine,” write Bratton and Schuster. “In contrast, an over-dependence on flags of convenience carriers and ships belonging to China or other nations that may test us could lead to hardship for those who live and serve under the flag of the United States.”
“Along with cyber attacks and espionage, China is developing a ‘blue water Navy,’ and new Chinese defense installations on the Spratly Islands now pose a threat to 40 percent of the world’s shipping. However, few people realize that China does not need to launch a naval attack or conduct a blockade to harm us. The economic power of their huge merchant marine, which gives them the ability to control shipping rates and service, has the potential to wreak havoc on our economy," said Don Marcus, President of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, the union that represents sea captains and deck officers on U.S.-flagged vessels. “This is not the time to abandon American ships,” he added. "This is a time we should be countering the threat of Chinese sea power by ensuring that we have a merchant marine capable of supporting our economic independence, as well as our military forces overseas."
The report can be found online at: http://www.hpu.edu/CHSS/History/DeptNews/SeaStrangulation11_171.pdf#Read.
Dr. Patrick Bratton is Associate Professor of Political Science, and Chair of the Department of History and International Studies at Hawai’i Pacific University, where he teaches courses in international relations and security studies. He is also a Fleet Seminar Professor for the Naval War College, College of Distance Education. He is a specialist in security issues, with a focus on coercive diplomacy, maritime security, and Indian foreign and security policy. He has been a visiting international fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), India’s leading foreign affairs think-tank.
He was co-editor with Geoffrey Till of The Triumph of Neptune? Seapower and the Asia Pacific (Routledge, 2012), and the author of several articles on Indian security issues and coercive diplomacy in journals including The Naval War College Review, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Strategic Analysis, and others. He received a BA in History from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; a MScEcon in Strategic Studies from the Aberystwyth University (UK); MA in History from the Université de Rennes (France), and a Ph.D. in Politics from The Catholic University of America.
Captain Carl Schuster was commissioned at the University of South Carolina NROTC Battalion in May 1974 and served in a variety of sea and shore postings during his 25-year career, including tours on Allied and U.S. Navy surface ships and submarines. He finished out his career as Director of Operations at the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific in Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i. After retirement, he joined the faculty at Hawai’i Pacific University where he has taught a variety of topics ranging from China’s Modern Military Doctrine and 20th Century Maritime Operations. He is also the director of a corporate think tank and a widely published author on matters of military history and contemporary military developments.
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