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How a Chinese naval blockade could isolate Taiwan and send shockwaves across the world

A blockade could accomplish what Beijing wants — minus the horrific casualties.

But what if a Taiwan D-Day never comes? What if instead of all-out invasion, Beijing instead opts for an escalating pressure campaign aimed at bringing Taiwan to its knees without actually starting a war?

In this scenario, Beijing’s campaign to snuff out Taiwan’s political autonomy would involve not hundreds of thousands of troops crossing the Taiwan Strait, but a more subtle approach: ships interdicted at sea and undersea cables snipped in mysterious circumstances. Many experts believe these tactics are more likely than all-out war.

“A full military attack is uncertain,” Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, told Grid. “To fight a war, you need at least some level of confidence that you’ll win, and the Chinese don’t have that at this point.” Sun said China’s concerns about a war in Taiwan have likely increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — an operation many seasoned military analysts assumed would be a weeklong cakewalk but which shows no signs of ending after nearly a year of war.

Tactics meant to isolate and strangle Taiwan’s economy are generally described as a “blockade,” but that’s a term that can encompass many different actions. Ian Easton, a defense analyst who studies Chinese military planning documents and doctrine, suggested that China could pursue a “protracted blockade that varies in intensity. The point would be to try to coerce the Taiwanese government to come to the negotiating table on conditions set by Beijing.”

More concerning, Easton told Grid he believes this campaign is “already starting at a very low level, and it’s gradually becoming more intensive over time.”

All-out blockade

For many, the operation was a wake-up call. In an emailed statement to Grid, Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister, Tsai Ming-yen, wrote, “Last year, the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war in February and China’s live-fire military drills around Taiwan in August alerted democracies around the world to the dangers of totalitarian expansionism. There is general recognition that solidarity is necessary to counter this trend.”

A naval blockade of Taiwan, enforced by mines, submarines or surface ships, could serve different purposes for China. In one scenario, a blockade could be used as a prelude to invasion. One major disadvantage for Taiwan’s allies in the event of war is that, unlike Ukraine, it does not have friendly neighboring countries that could be used for ongoing military resupply. A blockade would thus render resupply for the island all but impossible. But it is also possible that China would use the blockade as an alternative to invasion; in this scenario, it would attempt to strangle Taiwan’s economy and force it to negotiate away its sovereignty without sending a single soldier to the island.

When it comes to food, Taiwanese consumers are increasingly reliant on imports — namely wheat and corn products — although Taiwan is likely self-sufficient enough in rice, fruit, vegetables and wheat to get by in a worst-case scenario. The Taiwanese government has also begun stockpiling food and other critical supplies in preparation for a possible blockade.

Energy is another story. In 2021, Taiwan relied on imported fossil fuels — mainly liquefied natural gas and coal — for 97.7 percent of its energy supply. The island has only about 39 days’ worth of coal and an 11-day stockpile of gas. Taiwan is pouring billions of dollars into solar and wind energy — this is a country that has more reason than most to abandon fossil fuels — but is currently not on track to meet its 2025 targets for renewable energy production. The economic consequences of even a short or partial blockade could be disastrous.

Global spillover: a chip crisis

The economic effects of a blockade wouldn’t be limited to Taiwan or China. And nowhere would the global pain be felt more profoundly than when it comes to the world’s “smart” technologies. Put simply, a huge number of products that use microchips would face an immediate problem.

Experts sometimes refer to Taiwan’s vital role in the semiconductor industry as the “silicon shield”: the idea being that the economic costs, including to China, of cutting Taiwan off from the world are simply too high. But Miller pointed out that there are many examples of countries being willing to incur major economic costs to accomplish core political goals — and “reunification” with Taiwan is certainly a core political goal for the Chinese Communist Party. “I do worry that some people in Taiwan are overconfident about this,” he said.

“If we start getting back into nationalistic shipping and interdicting other nations’ ability to trade, you know, that almost brings us back to the 17th-18th century, and it’s really risky,” Sal Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and shipping historian, told Grid.


Meanwhile, given how intertwined the two countries are, and how many Chinese citizens are employed by Taiwanese firms such as tech manufacturer Foxconn or shipping company Evergreen, the impact of a blockade on the Chinese economy would reach well beyond semiconductors.

“Without Taiwanese suppliers, China’s economy will grind to a halt quite quickly,” said Easton. “There would be massive unemployment in China. It’d be very, very difficult for them to pull off a protracted blockade of Taiwan without destroying themselves.”

For that reason, China could attempt to carry out a less intense, less blatant blockade. It could do this by having its coast guard (rather than navy) interdict and inspect ships traveling into Taiwanese waters — which according to Beijing are Chinese waters — in the name of drug enforcement, anti-piracy or some other pretext. Or China could start demanding that ships traveling to Taiwan first go through Chinese customs. This would have the effect of slowing rather than shutting down Taiwan trade entirely, making global shipping companies think twice about using these trade routes. The tactic might disrupt arms shipments to Taiwan as well. Of course, the risk is that Taiwan and the United States could apply the same approach to ships bound for China.

Information blockade

While technologies such as Elon Musk’s Starlink have proved enormously effective at maintaining connectivity in Ukraine, it’s likely not sufficient to keep one of the most high-tech economies running.

Into the gray zone

These military displays could be combined with so-called gray zone tactics: provocative actions meant to undermine Taiwan’s political system and unnerve its population but which can’t be directly linked back to China. These could range in intensity from online information campaigns to targeted assassinations. Becca Wasser, a senior fellow and war gaming specialist at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), told Grid that the advantage of gray zone tactics is their “low cost” relative to options like an invasion or full blockade.

“It’s very difficult to foresee a scenario where the Pentagon is going to suggest entering into a broader war with China” unless China has itself committed a clear act of war, Wasser said.

Can China win in Taiwan without war?

While China clearly has a range of options short of invasion to pressure Taiwan, it’s less clear that any of them will accomplish Beijing’s goal of forcing Taiwan to abandon its autonomy and submit to full political control from Beijing. Decades of political and economic pressure have only turned public opinion in Taiwan more staunchly against Beijing. More concerted pressure, or even a full blockade, could produce a rally-round-the-flag effect that only stiffens Taiwan’s resolve.

The Chinese government is caught between an unacceptable status quo — Taiwan’s de facto independence — and a course of action, war, that would be unspeakably costly and might well be disastrous. For these reasons alone, there’s a good chance China will try every other conceivable option.

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