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The subtle siege: How China could blockade Taiwan

Hand,Drawing,A,Red,Line,Between,Taiwan,Isle,And,Mainland

Guest post by Paul Dabrowa

You wake up in July 2025 to headlines blaring across every news outlet: “China invades Taiwan with coast guard fleet.” The images are striking—Chinese coast guard ships, flanked by a formidable array of maritime militia vessels, are seen enforcing a de facto blockade around Taiwan. The airwaves are filled with reports of these ships stopping and inspecting commercial vessels, turning away those not compliant with newly declared “customs regulations.” This isn’t an outright military invasion with PLA troops storming the beaches, but a meticulously orchestrated maritime operation leveraging the legal ambiguities and strategic nuances of international maritime law. The world holds its breath, watching as the global supply chain teeters on the brink of chaos.

This isn’t an invasion in the traditional sense but a sophisticated, insidious maneuver—China has effectively blockaded Taiwan under the guise of “enhanced customs inspections.”

A cunning strategy?

China’s strategy is as cunning as it is bold. By announcing enhanced customs inspections for all cargo and tanker vessels heading to Taiwan, Beijing cloaks its aggressive tactics in a veneer of legality. Shipping companies are now required to file advanced customs declarations for their ships, cargo, and crew with China. Without Chinese approval, these vessels are halted in their tracks.

This bureaucratic nightmare is more than just red tape. It’s a deliberate move to strangle Taiwan’s lifeline. As vessels are stopped, inspected, and potentially expelled from Chinese-claimed waters, delays and disruptions ripple through the global supply chain. Companies reroute their ships to avoid the hassle, pushing up shipping costs and reshuffling trade routes. The result? Taiwan’s economic isolation, achieved without a single shot fired.

Enter China’s maritime militia—a fleet of civilian fishing vessels doubling as enforcers of Beijing’s will. These aren’t your typical fishermen; they’re strategically deployed to monitor and reinforce the blockade. Filling the gaps between official Coast Guard operations, these militia boats ensure comprehensive coverage that’s as intimidating as it is effective.

This civilian facade allows China to operate in a grey zone, skirting direct military engagement while exerting relentless pressure on Taiwan. The maritime militia’s role is crucial, providing eyes and ears on the water, ready to report and react to any breach of the blockade.

Backing this maritime militia is the omnipresent shadow of the PLA Navy. Operating from a distance, the navy provides sensor support and communication, maintaining a constant watch without direct involvement in the stop-and-inspect operations. This separation is strategic, preserving the narrative of legality and reducing the risk of direct military confrontation.

China’s endgame is clear: control Taiwan’s maritime access without provoking outright war. By framing the blockade as a series of “enhanced customs inspections,” Beijing dodges the international backlash that would follow a formal military blockade. This tactic allows China to incrementally tighten its grip, pushing the envelope of what’s permissible under international law.

The economic ramifications are profound. Taiwan, a linchpin in the global supply chain, finds its ports choked and its trade routes disrupted. Industries worldwide—from consumer electronics to automotive manufacturing—feel the squeeze. The message from Beijing is unmistakable: Taiwan’s fate is inextricably linked to China’s will.

The militarization of the Chinese Coast Guard

In 2018, China made a pivotal decision by transferring its coast guard from State Council oversight to the People’s Armed Police Force, under the direct control of the Central Military Command. This move effectively militarized the Coast Guard, aligning it with the strategic objectives of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The implications of this transfer became glaringly evident with the 2021 enactment of a new Coast Guard law. This legislation bestowed unprecedented authority upon the Chinese coast guard, including the right to forcibly evict foreign military vessels from areas China claims as its own.

Crucially, the law is steeped in ambiguity. Article 3 states that the Coast Guard operates in maritime areas under Chinese jurisdiction, yet it conspicuously fails to define these areas’ exact boundaries. This deliberate vagueness creates a “geographical grey zone,” allowing China to extend its maritime claims incrementally and contestably.

Legal Ambiguities: A cover for aggression

The 2021 law’s ambiguity presents significant challenges to established international maritime norms. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ensures freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage through international waters. China’s assertion that it can enforce its laws in undefined maritime areas stands in direct conflict with these principles.

During the Joint Sword 2024 naval exercise, this strategic ambiguity was starkly demonstrated. The Chinese Coast Guard, backed by the PLA Navy, intercepted, boarded, and inspected a commercial vessel in the Taiwan Strait. This action is part of a broader pattern aimed at asserting Chinese control over crucial maritime routes. By framing these operations as “enhanced customs inspections,” China maintains a facade of legality while exerting substantial pressure on international shipping. This tactic leverages legal gray zones to achieve strategic objectives without overtly breaching international law, complicating the global response.

Economic and geopolitical consequences

The economic ramifications of China’s maritime strategy are profound. Taiwan, a critical hub in the global supply chain, depends heavily on maritime trade. Its two major ports handle billions of dollars in annual shipping. A blockade, or even significant delays due to enhanced inspections, could disrupt global supply chains, affecting industries worldwide, from consumer electronics to automotive parts.

China’s approach introduces significant risks for international shipping companies. The prospect of delays, inspections, or interdictions might prompt these companies to reroute their vessels away from Taiwanese ports, increasing shipping costs and shifting trade patterns. This could economically isolate Taiwan, benefitting ports in other regions but destabilizing global trade flows.

Moreover, China employs a maritime militia—a force of civilian fishing vessels that act as observers and enforcers. These militia members fill gaps between official Coast Guard operations, ensuring comprehensive coverage of waters around Taiwan. This, combined with the Coast Guard’s expanded capabilities, creates a formidable barrier to free navigation in the region.

The need for a coordinated international response

The international community must recognize the gravity of this situation and respond effectively. China’s strategy of operating in the grey zones of international law and maritime jurisdiction is not just a regional issue but a global one. The principles at stake—freedom of navigation, the rule of law, and the stability of international trade routes—are foundational to the global order.

First, there needs to be a concerted effort to clarify and reinforce international maritime laws. The international community, through bodies like the United Nations and the International Maritime Organization, should work to close the legal loopholes that China is exploiting. Clearer definitions of maritime boundaries and stricter enforcement of UNCLOS provisions are essential.

Second, there should be a unified diplomatic response to China’s actions. Countries with significant stakes in maritime trade, such as the United States, Japan, South Korea and the European Union must present a united front. Diplomatic efforts should highlight the illegality and economic fallout of China’s actions, urging Beijing to adhere to international norms.

Finally, practical measures are needed to ensure the security of international shipping. Multinational coalitions should increase naval patrols in the Taiwan Strait and other contested areas, conducting regular freedom of navigation operations to assert international rights.

Steering through uncharted waters

China’s expansion of its Coast Guard operations into the Taiwan Strait and beyond marks a significant shift in the geopolitical landscape. By operating in the grey zones of international law, China tests the limits of global maritime norms and challenges the international community to respond.

The stakes are high. Failure to address this issue decisively could embolden China and other nations to further erode the principles of international maritime law, leading to increased instability and economic disruption. The world must navigate this challenge with a clear understanding of the legal, economic, and strategic implications, ensuring that the seas remain open and free for all.

China’s tactics in the Taiwan Strait are a litmus test for the international order’s resilience. The response from the global community will set a precedent, either reinforcing the rule of law at sea or allowing strategic ambiguity to undermine the stability of international trade.

About Paul Dabrowa: After studying at the University of Melbourne and Harvard Kennedy School between 1998 – 2002, Paul Dabrowa worked in fixed income in London for Morgan Stanley, Merryl Lynch and Goldman Sachs from 2003 – 2009. He was a candidate for the European Union Parliamentary elections in 2009. In 2010, he co-founded the company Astrosleep, commercialising technology originally developed for NASA to manage astronaut circadian health and using it to maximise performance for elite athletes, racehorses and Formula One teams. Dabrowa also co-founded biome.ai, a company which uses artificial intelligence to develop treatments for diseases using the human microbiome. He also advises a number of governments on national security issues.

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