March 15th 2016

Never has the United States been so dependent on ships to carry its imports and exports. Yet never has America had fewer of its own ships to carry goods. The steady decline in the size of the U.S.-flag fleet, which now numbers fewer than 100 vessels in international trade, puts America’s competitiveness and maritime security at considerable risk. This is particularly true in light of the rapid expansion of China in terms of number of ships, number of mariners and ambitions of territorial and political expansion.

These are among the conclusions of a new report, “Sea Strangulation: How the United States Has Become Vulnerable to Chinese Maritime Coercion.” The report, authored by two professors at Hawai`i Pacific University, outlines 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.

Since 2010, as America continues to allow its own fleet to dwindle, The People’s Republic of China has nearly doubled the size of its own commercial fleet. Today almost 4,000 ships fly the Chinese flag. An increasingly aggressive China, the study warns, can use its growing domination of global shipping to enforce its strategic and military objectives, including the control and potential cut-off of military and civilian goods.

“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,” the authors write.

“Few people realize that China does not need to launch a naval attack or conduct a blockade to harm us,” agreed MM&P President Don Marcus. “The economic power of China’s huge merchant marine, which gives it the ability to control shipping rates and service, has the potential to wreak havoc on our economy.”

The authors of the report are Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the U.S. Joint Intelligence Center Pacific, and Patrick Bratton, associate professor of political science at Hawai`i Pacific University.

The two say the United States “has adopted an ‘abandon ship’ policy towards the crucial merchant maritime industry,” by letting it shrink to its smallest size since the Spanish-American War. Only about 80 of the ships engaged in international trade across the world’s oceans are U.S.-flag carriers, compared with a Chinese deep sea merchant fleet of 3,900 ships.

The report has received coverage in a number of publications, including the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Marinelink, MarEx, Professional Mariner and Tradewinds.

Click here to view the report.