China, me old China

by John Quiggin on April 5, 2017

One of the reasons I like blogging and opinion writing is that I’m better at thinking up ideas than at the hard work needed to turn them into properly researched journal articles, which is the core business of being an academic. So, it’s great when an idea I’ve floated in a fairly half-baked form in a blog or magazine article gets cited in a real journal article. Even better when it’s a colleague or, in this case, former colleague who cites me.

James Laurenceson, formerly of UQ and now Deputy Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS, has an article just out in the Australian Journal of International Affairs (paywalled, unfortunately, but well reading if you can get access), on Economics and freedom of navigation in East Asia, which cites a short piece I wrote last year and reproduced here. My key points were

  • Contrary to many claims, China has no interest in blocking trade in the South China Sea, since most of it goes to and from China
  • For the smaller volume of trade between other countries, the cost of taking a more roundabout route is so small that China could not exert any significant leverage by restricting access to the South China Sea
  • There’s nothing special about this case. The whole idea that navies are vitally needed to keep sea lanes open is nonsense

Where I based the first two claims on a bit of Google searching and a couple of academic papers, James has developed the argument in convincing detail, addressing a wide range of possible counterarguments. If I could find someone to do the same thing for my third claim, I’d be very happy.



William Berry 04.05.17 at 10:55 pm

Careful, JQ! Don’t get the warboy crowd going again on your naval “pacifism”.


Glen Tomkins 04.06.17 at 1:38 am

As to your third claim, people who bother to know much about naval weaponry have thereby acquired a considerable stake in believing that such knowledge is worth something, therefore a stake in belief in the efficacy of naval weaponry.

Personally, I suspect that any reasonably diligent power could figure out how to sink all of our US carriers in the opening minutes of a war. The traditional game of naval cat and mouse rested on the idea that you could keep your forces hidden for longer and further away from the enemy than the reverse, and you would therefore strike first and prevail, because every hit would be a kill. But all the powers have satellites now. I imagine that they can keep track of where all the naval assets are, 24/7. Sitting ducks, all of them. The submarines perhaps are less vulnerable, but why do you need them, because the enemy’s merchant ships are even more sitting ducks than the enemy’s naval assets.

Naval pacifism, naval nihilism, call it what you will, but I’ve never seen anyone explain how they keep the cat-and-mouse thing going now that we have satellites.


oldster 04.06.17 at 1:57 am

“but well reading if you can get access”
“but well worth reading if you can get access”


mjfgates 04.06.17 at 3:00 am

Last time 3) came up, didn’t everybody come to the conclusion that what you need to keep sea lanes open is basically the US Coast Guard?


Gabriel 04.06.17 at 6:25 am

I’m more inclined to listen to naval warfare experts on #3. ‘But the experts have a vested interest in X Y Z.’ strikes me as exactly the same asinine ‘argument’ used by Global Warming Deniers, a fact that should give the people deploying it pause.


Robespierre 04.06.17 at 6:33 am

You’ve already shown that you will consider any opposing argument as spurious or irrelevant to your discussion, so why bother?


William Berry 04.06.17 at 6:05 pm


OK. I’ll bite.

Deploying “asinine ‘argument'”: The majority of “naval warfare experts” are likely military officers, ex-military officers, military historians (more than a few conservatives and neo-cons in their ranks, no?), etc.; i.e., hammers who really love them some nails.

Climate experts? Granted, they are mostly somewhat to the left 0n the political spectrum (like the majority of genuinely liberally educated smart folks) but they are scientists. who do, you know, actual science.

Also, too, what Glen Tomkins said.


Stephen 04.06.17 at 6:53 pm

Glen Tomkins:

“But all the powers have satellites now. I imagine that they can keep track of where all the naval assets are, 24/7. Sitting ducks, all of them.”

I am in no way a military, naval or aerospace expert. I don’t know if you are. If not, I reckon my imagination is as good as yours. And I imagine that:

24/7 surveillance of the rather large areas of ocean would require a rather large number of reconnaissance satellites (which move rapidly in orbits that change in complicated patterns).

These can only send data to central control if they are not destroyed by anti-satellite missiles, a possible first step in confrontation but maybe not a casus belli.

If they are not destroyed, they can only send data if their radio communications are neither blocked nor subverted.

They can only obtain reliable data in sufficient detail if they are deceived neither by physical nor by electronic dummies, and if their targets are not obscured by cloud or smoke (including radar-opaque smoke).

To a considerable extent, the last problem could I imagine be avoided by launching a fairly massive nuclear strike across a wide area. The wisdom of doing that against surface naval assets, while leaving submarine, aircraft and missile assets in other locations untouched, I leave to your imagination. The wisdom of launching nuclear strikes against all of the above, I leave to your detection with a rather powerful electron microscope.


John Quiggin 04.06.17 at 8:22 pm

@Gabriel Two big problems with “naval warfare experts”

1, Unlike climate scientists, they don’t have any actual data or capacity to test hypotheses. That’s because there hasn’t been any naval warfare involving modern weapons on which to do the test.

2. They have zero expertise in economics, and unthinkingly accept spurious (but convenient for their case ) claims like “keeping sea lanes open is economically vital”.


Glen Tomkins 04.06.17 at 10:46 pm


Climate change deniers also often make use of the English language. Yet, somehow, despite that, I am willing to risk being tarred with the brush of the continued use of that self-same language.


Mike Furlan 04.06.17 at 11:07 pm

If keeping the sea lanes open is economically vital, then it would require Jared and Ivanka (to name two who could redeem themselves as cannon fodder) at the head of a naval task force keeping them clear.

If the vitality involved is just my own kids, then it doesn’t seem to really be all the important.


Eli Rabett 04.07.17 at 12:46 am

Pirates (Red Sea, Java Sea, etc)


Gabriel 04.07.17 at 2:07 am

The counterargument seems to be ‘scientific expertise is the only valid expertise’. So it’s hard positivism then boys? Is it suddenly 1992?

I find this ‘no navy’ argument fascinating, as it goes completely against overriding expert opinion (current and historical) and common sense. As such, the burden of proof lies squarely on those asserting this. It seems to me they have to address:

1. Piracy, both socially and economically. Coast guards are certainly vital in protecting against piracy, but the problem does not begin and end in the home country’s waters.

2. Defense. Navies are obviously vital during wartime, and a standing Navy is useful both in power projection and to guard supply lines during wartime. Furthermore, the answer cannot simply be ‘just build ships during wartime’, as they take a long time to build and staff and there is a concomitant loss of expertise when Navies are dissolved in peacetime.

If the answer to #2 is some version of ‘give peace a chance’… given the increased violence and instability that’s going to arise in a world increasingly affected by global warming, that doesn’t seem to me a very practical answer.


MFB 04.07.17 at 6:02 am

The issue is surely not, then, keeping sea lanes open (they are open and, as Quiggin points out, the Chinese would lose by closing them).

The Soviet Navy was once the second largest navy in the world, but the USSR’s oceanic trade was insignificant (though admittedly its fishing activity was substantial); Admiral Gorshkov was not concerned with sea lanes, but with sea control and denial.

So that’s basically what it’s about; keeping the Chinese out of the South China Sea. In other words, possessing the power to close sea lanes, to blockade China. So what’s happening here is that aggression is being packaged as self-defense.

And that’s the role of the U.S. Navy; aggression, either by threat (send a carrier to within bombing range of the country which you wish to threaten) or action (launch cruise missiles against the country whose government you are trying to overthrow).

So, basically, the whole debate is on the wrong premises, because it presumes the innocence of the guilty, guilty, guilty party.


faustusnotes 04.07.17 at 6:46 am

Reading the article from the OP, it seems that one benefit of having a navy is that you don’t have to build large, expensive, environmentally destructive and politically sensitive artificial reefs in the middle of your major sea routes in order to protect them from potential disruption.


derrida derider 04.07.17 at 7:27 am

Gabriel @13 –
1. You’re surely joking. So we need 2 percent of US GDP (for supercarriers and nuclear subs mainly) to manage Somali fishermen?
2. Clearly you have not read John’s argument. It’s not “give peace a chance”, but “poor value for money in either war or peace”.


John Quiggin 04.07.17 at 10:41 am

Gabriel @13 I’m glad to see that you’ve dropped the comparison between naval warfare “expertise” and science

On the points that need to be addressed, i dealt with #1 a while back

On #2, the last 70 years have consisted predominantly of wartime (that is, war involving at least one of the major powers). It’s not obvious, to me at least, that navies have been vital as you claim. Perhaps you could offer a more precise definition of the kind of wart you have in mind.


Faustusnotes 04.07.17 at 11:27 am

Is there any evidence that these navies have been deployed against pirates? Currently the sea shepherds are worki with an African country (I forget which) to break illegal fishing rings but they just have a few low tech ships and some rifles. Is there any evidence that pirates demand much more than that?


Gabriel 04.07.17 at 11:32 am

This is all rather embarrassing so far.

1. I have not dropped by objection that the argument that ‘those experts are only trying to line their pockets’ is the same argument trotted out by climate change denialists. Because it is. And ‘the only real experts are scientists’ doesn’t seem to address my point.

2. John, I’ve read that post before. It’s so shoddy I’d hesitate to even call it an invitation to discussion, much less an argument. You admit you have no idea what the cost of piracy is, ‘but it looks like estimates are high’, then you suggest that we don’t get cost-benefit from the navy (presumably from your guesswork) even though no one claims that the navy’s only job is to combat piracy. What’s worse, you pretend like that your guess re: the upper bound of current piracy is at all representative of a world in which no one has a navy! And it ignores the fact that saving merchants from pirates might, you know, be a social good. “People say we need police to stop theft, but if you guess at the current monetary losses due to theft then jump to conclusions based on that guess, you’ll see we don’t need police.” Really?

3. Yes, and navies have been used throughout that time? How well-versed are you on the military necessary of navies in modern warfare, from bush wars and police actions to humanitarian aid and potential conflict against enemies with their own significant naval presence? Pardon me if my guess is, “You don’t know fuck-all.” Have you bothered to direct your ideas directly to those people who make it their jobs to think about this stuff, or are you rather somewhat speaking completely outside of expertise posting generalized guesses and the pursuant ‘observations’ to readers similarly outside of their areas of expertise? If you’ve made no attempts to actually engage the people whose field you are making grand pronouncements about, why are we supposed to take any of this seriously?

What are you really offering here? Snide comments about ‘militarist whack-a-mole’ – belittling the unidentified amorphous They would would dare take issue with your ‘arguments’? How very Fox News. I will tell you EXACTLY what I tell the climate change denialists: until you engage directly with the people whose field(s) of expertise you are claiming are fundamentally delusional, I will file you away with every other example of this deplorable behavior. I think I have room right next to ‘Ken Wilber’.


Trader Joe 04.07.17 at 11:35 am

Its probably a fools errand to argue since most minds are made up, but when a military person talks about ‘keeping sea lanes open’ its not about moving trade and passengers its about moving military material through those sea lanes.

The d-day invasion wasn’t accomplished by airplane, it was done by boat. When the US conducted its various missions in Iraq, all the ‘stuff’ and many of the people were transferred in by boat. Military stuff is heavy – airplanes can be used to some extent but airplanes are easier targets than boats and they unfortunately need to land somewhere – boats can stay at sea for years at a time.

In most all of the actions the US has participated in (of which sadly there have been a lot) a naval fleet has been the so called front-line command center for the opps using it as a shuttle point for small infiltration (via chopper) and a signal station for intel both satellite and otherwise. Essentially a forward base, without having to be in country.

The Cuban missile crisis another case in point – the ‘open sea lanes’ weren’t to facilitate getting cigars from Cuba, it was keeping missiles out.

Even when conducting an air campaign, its not possible to be sure there will be friendly airstrips – hence aircraft carriers which are big sitting duck targets that then need a convoy of ships available for defense of that platform. Since oceans are big and ships are slow – you tend to need a lot of all of it.

So – separate from whether I agree with the OP point or not, I think it is arguing a civilian rather than an military interpretation of “open sea lanes.”


Z 04.07.17 at 2:13 pm

Further to Trader Joe, this discussion on the use of military navies took place literally on the day two destroyers of the US navy destroyed a Syrian air base. This, not keeping sea lanes open for trade, is the purpose of contemporary military navies.


Stephen 04.07.17 at 3:40 pm

MFB@14: you say it’s all about “keeping the Chinese out of the South China Sea. In other words, possessing the power to close sea lanes, to blockade China”.

I’m baffled. If the USN wanted, for whatever not-easily-specifiable reason, to blockade China, whyever would they need as any part of that to keep the Chinese out of the South China Sea? The concept of distant blockade has been around since 1914 or earlier, and very successful it has been too.


James 04.07.17 at 4:10 pm

I would be skeptical of research on this topic coming out of the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS given the controversies over its funding sources, as well as recent failure to be critical of the PRC in detaining UTS academic Dr. Chongyi Feng. Even UTS’ student paper refers to it as a ‘pro-China thinktank’.


A H 04.07.17 at 6:13 pm

“So that’s basically what it’s about; keeping the Chinese out of the South China Sea. In other words, possessing the power to close sea lanes, to blockade China. So what’s happening here is that aggression is being packaged as self-defense.”

Try telling that to the Vietnamese.


Layman 04.07.17 at 8:26 pm

Z: “Further to Trader Joe, this discussion on the use of military navies took place literally on the day two destroyers of the US navy destroyed a Syrian air base.”

I rather think that point operates in JQ’s favor. The Syrians are right now launching air strikes from the base you say the US Navy destroyed. Which is to say, the effectiveness of long-range strikes from naval assets is always exaggerated, by the people with a vested interest in spending more money on naval assets.


J-D 04.07.17 at 8:53 pm

Gabriel, the question that interests me is this: if the arguments that you’re offering justify the maintenance of a navy, how much navy do they justify, and what kind of navy? I can’t get comfortable with the idea of telling the admirals they can spend as much as they like on whatever they like. What kind of navy is useful, for example, for anti-piracy operations? I have no idea. And what kind of navy is useful for the other activities you have in mind?

I see that Wikipedia has a list of navies. It tells me, for example, that Iceland has a coastguard, but no navy by that name. The Icelandic Coastguard, Wikipedia tells me, consists of three patrol vessels, one fixed-wing aircraft, three helicopters, two patrol/survey boats, and 200 officers and men. How would an expert go about evaluating whether that’s enough, too much, or too little? If it is enough for Iceland, does that mean it would be enough for any country?

Or how about the Bolivarian Navy of Venezuela? Six frigates, four corvettes, two submarines, four amphibious ships, eight patrol boats, three auxiliary ships — if that’s enough naval vessels for Venezuela, is it enough for any country? Of, if it’s not enough for Venezuela, how do we know it’s not enough?

I don’t suppose governments spend much time seriously considering the question ‘Should we have a navy at all?’, but governments (and admirals too) must spend time considering what ships, what planes, what weapons systems they should buy — and I can’t see the value in an analysis that attempts to justify having some navy if it isn’t helpful in answering that kind of question.


jgtheok 04.08.17 at 12:29 am

So, based upon points (1) & (2), I’d suspect there’s someone in China whose job is to worry about bad things happening to shipping in the South China Sea and to come up with potential countermeasures… I’m not sure what the mission referenced in (3) even means – but may well share that with the OP. Suspect that if I did, (3) would translate to something like “since no rival nation has a Ministry of Offense, our Ministry of Defense is clearly unnecessary.”

Sigh. This thread again?

JQ can have interesting ideas. Unfortunately, the rehashed cost-benefits of “keeping the sea lanes open” feels plain weird. Since the original thread seemed to illustrate an unwillingness to engage with the purported issue enough to, say, skim through some summary charts from an actual naval budget to, I don’t know, see which expenses might actually apply?

I found the original discussion frustrating. Piracy does exist and is a naval concern, but, as earlier posters have pointed out, “open sea lanes” is… probably euphemistic when stated in the context of rival nation-states. (Should diplomacy fail, wouldn’t the navy’s role involve a great deal of “closing?”) The era of wartime blockades and massive destruction of merchant shipping may be over (WMDs would be used long before that point, surely?). But I suspect little money is being spent towards such capabilities. Yes, the Napoleonic Wars have been over for some time – but no one’s navy is expecting to fight them, either. Yet thread moderation repeatedly shelved proposed injections of reality in favor of… pummeling a straw man?

The fixation on what appears to be a small and vaguely-defined part of the naval mission is… not encouraging. The casual contempt behind flourishes like “naval warfare ‘expertise’ ” – is… not encouraging. Earlier comments have noted a strong odor of motivated reasoning,

I get that JQ has strong opinions about military spending. Fine, many people do. If he has some thesis, relevant to actual naval expenses, perhaps just articulate it and step away from the thread? Because he’s usually a lot more convincing than this…


awy 04.08.17 at 12:50 am

china wants to limit the u.s.’ ability to hold them at risk in the situation of a taiwan invasion.


Chaz 04.08.17 at 4:24 am

I am very impressed by Gabriel’s fortitude. He has read John’s previous posts and knows that John has already refuted every point he wants to make, and was even able to identify by name the “whack-a-mole” problem that plagues these threads, but that did not deter him from embarking on a new round of tunnel burrowing.

Fortitudinous people aside, I feel like we’re all working our way to a consensus on this. Most people seem to agree that:
1. It is not practical for a nation to build a large navy just to protect its trade.
2. No one really wants to blockade you anyway.
3. Pirates don’t count.
4. Now if you are planning to fight a land war overseas you do need a navy for that.
5. Some people want to be able to fight wars overseas and some people don’t.
5. And you also need a navy if you want to blockade people.
6. But don’t get your hopes up of that blockade actually accomplishing anything.

Now to be fair I will add in corollary 1.a. which is that if you are an island nation which is a major net importer of food, and you have an enemy that might try to make you starve to death, then you may need to build a navy large enough to prevent blockade.

But that brings up corollary 1.a.a. which is that Germany did find itself in that position in WWI (despite not being an island) and fortunately had invested massive resources into a very large navy, but it didn’t work and they starved anyway.

And also corollary 1.a.b which is that if you are talking about the U.S. then this argument doesn’t apply because we have lots of food and also because no one has a big enough navy to blockade the U.S. in the first place. Well maybe Russia or China could if we literally disbanded our entire navy and also our entire air force but come on no one suggested that.


Gabriel 04.08.17 at 11:41 am


“Instead of politely address Gabriel’s points, I’m going to hand-wave away his contribution and declare by fiat that he is wrong by being as passive-aggressively shitty as possible. I will now turn back to my echo chamber and declare consensus with the twelve people (none of who work in relevant fields) who agree with me, much like other echo chambers declare ‘consensus’ about global warming in other parts of the ‘net, to equal effect.”


I agree it’s an interesting question. I would love to see an in-depth discussion on the topic undertaken by people with the necessary backgrounds and knowledge to give an informed opinion. What JQ is offering here is the equivalent of the conversations you had while smoking weed and lying on the hood of that wicked Trans Am you had as a teenager. So, you know, fun, but not exactly deep or meaningful.

What if, like, every nation in history was wrong, man, and all the experts were just, you know, lying to us, man, and we didn’t even need a Navy at all? WHOOOOAAA.


Stephen 04.08.17 at 8:40 pm

Chaz: “I will add in corollary 1.a. which is that if you are an island nation which is a major net importer of food, and you have an enemy that might try to make you starve to death, then you may need to build a navy large enough to prevent blockade.”

I would supplement that by corollary 1.a .1 which is that if you are a continental nation which is a major importer of essential items, then you may need to build a navy large enough to prevent blockade.

Add corollary 1.a.2 which is that if you build a navy large enough to antagonise your neighbours, but not large enough to prevent blockade, you have made your situation much worse.

The parallel you draw with Germany in WWI and China now is interesting. Germany built a navy big enough to keep the RN out of the Baltic, and to dispute the southern North Sea, but that did nothing at all to interfere with the RN’s distant blockade. China may be able to keep the USN out of the South China Sea, or at least dispute it, but …

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