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IWP students and alumni practice exercising tools of statecraft in the South China Sea

“I felt that the simulation provided me with valuable clarity regarding the obstacles and issues facing nations around the world as they address regional geopolitical challenges.”
– IWP Student Elise Settle

IWP held a virtual Crisis in the South China Sea game on Saturday, 8 January with 24 students and alumni.  They were organized into five country-teams (U.S., China, Australia, the Philippines, and Vietnam), and they strategized, negotiated, and maneuvered for five hours, followed by an hour-long hotwash.  In addition, players attended a training session two weeks prior to the game, and a coordination/negotiation session three days prior.

The stand-alone game was held by IWP adjunct professor Aaron Danis, with invaluable assistance from Professor Wayne Hugar, a China military expert and colleague of Prof. Danis at National Intelligence University, where Prof. Danis works in his day job.

Prof. Danis commented: “I use games in my IWP courses, and I have wanted to try this one on the South China Sea (SCS) for a while.  It required that the players do some read-ahead and research over the winter break, with unbelievable support and guidance from Wayne who has participated in such games in the Department of Defense and deployed to the SCS during his previous US Navy career.”

South China Sea Crisis Simulation
The United States secretly conducted a cyber-attack to temporarily halt the dredging just as the game ended.

The two-month (four-turn) crisis scenario postulated that China had just moved sand dredgers and coast guard vessels to the contested (with the Philippines) Scarborough Shoal, threatening to turn it into an artificial island or military outpost.  “This is a real possibility,” said Prof. Hugar, “as China has had de facto control of the shoal since 2012 and could literally do this at any time.”  This threatened act to “change the facts on the ground” forced players into negotiations with allies and adversaries, while maneuvering military and non-military assets in the region.  This action occurred against the background of the annual Philippine-U.S.-Australia Balikatan military exercise in Luzon.  The Chinese simultaneously threatened Vietnamese fishing fleets using its People’s Maritime Militia and launched a global propaganda offensive.

The virtual nature of the game, brought on by bad weather and COVID restrictions, gave students a feel for the real-world difficulties of coordinating within their assigned country teams, let alone between countries thousands of miles away.  The U.S. Army War College gaming center let IWP borrow its virtual version of this game, which would normally be played in person on a board at IWP. The game was originally designed by an active-duty UK Army officer.

“Sure, China got the Scarborough Shoal, but at least we got an economic package out of it.”
– Philippine team member, reflecting on the reality of his team’s predicament

Prof. Danis noted that this is a complex scenario, with competing territorial and historical claims over vast areas of ocean, and weak states trying to go toe-to-toe with stronger states.  There are no easy solutions.  “The students had to wrestle with problems sets they were unfamiliar with, while trying to use the tools of statecraft they learn at IWP,” he said.  Students made tradeoffs, “making lemonade out of lemons” and relying on allies to take actions where they themselves lacked the capabilities.  Prof Danis would like to run another simulation with a different hotspot later in the year.

“[These types of simulations] have allowed me to not only apply the instruments of national power I’ve learned in class within a fast-paced environment but also deepen my own analytical skills when considering the consequences of geography, culture, and diplomatic capabilities when pursuing your simulated policies.”
– IWP Student Sean Honesty

South China Sea Crisis Simulation
The full virtual game map and pieces.

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