Following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, political and military leaders have been gripped by the prospect of war with China. As China continues to militarize the South China Sea and expand its presence near Taiwan, the administration of President Joe Biden now identifies the Asian giant as America’s “pacing” threat, aligning US policies, strategies, and military modernization to deter China.
Many senior US officials applaud this approach, claiming that a war with China is inevitable. According to Thomas Friedman, this perspective is shaped by heightened mistrust between leaders in both countries. Though Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley has cautioned that war with China is not a forgone conclusion, the new Joint Warfighting Concept is designed to overcome China’s antiaccess and area-denial strategy in Asia. The apparent intractability of the Sino-US security dilemma, wherein China’s military modernization and expanding regional posture alarms US officials, is also acknowledged by some international relations scholars. Graham Allison cautions that China and the United States may be “destined for war,” drawing a similarity to the way Athens’s rise instilled fear in Sparta, leading to the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC).
This narrative has encouraged a renaissance of simulations among political scientists and military educators. Indeed, countless simulations have studied the possibility of a Sino-US war and the potential outcomes. Though commissioned by different agencies, departments, and institutes, these simulations share two key features. First, simulations have largely focused on the disputes over the South China Sea and Taiwan. This is perhaps expected, given these two flashpoints are so closely watched by the media, think tanks, and policymakers. China’s ongoing militarization of the South China Sea threatens the integrity of an important sea line of communication, according analysts. And the political status of Taiwan is the starkest reminder for Chinese leaders of what they describe as the century of humiliation (1839–1949), in which China lost control over large areas of its territory, including Taiwan, to foreign invaders. Yet other tensions in Asia could also escalate into conflict, including in the East China Sea. Second, simulations mostly explore the potential for war rather than the prospects for peaceful conflict resolution. These wargames are explicitly designed to study how one country can use its military power to deter another country’s behavior. Analysts largely agree, however, that the costs of a Sino-US war would be high for both countries.
In light of these trends, we argue that US decision-makers should broaden their understanding of the Sino-US security dilemma as well as adopt the use of “peace games” to help manage crisis escalation. Similar to Project Solarium, commissioned by President Dwight Eisenhower to manage competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, peace games are differentiated from wargames by allowing participants to explore how to use all elements of national power, especially diplomacy, to minimize the potential for conflict. Indeed, policymakers’ ability to synchronize the various instruments of US power is decisive to the durability of stable relations with other countries, especially during periods of heightened competition. Recently, Cornell University’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs, in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation and United States Institute of Peace, commissioned such a peace game to explore how members of Congress understand the potential for Sino-US conflict escalation surrounding the long-standing Sino-Japanese territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Our peace game showed that members of Congress adopt conflicting beliefs about this territorial dispute’s bearing on the likelihood of a wider Sino-US war.
On one hand, members of Congress do not want a war with China, and do not believe that conflict is inevitable. They contend that Chinese leaders’ hostile rhetoric is designed to appease their citizens, and that many off-ramps to conflict exist. On the other hand, members of Congress are concerned that several dynamics could push both countries to conflict. These include the evolving Sino-US relationship, US treaty obligations to Japan, and a social media ecosystem riddled with misinformation that shapes mutual suspicion and animosity. While these findings reflect the difficulties of managing Sino-US competition, they also show the merits of our innovative approach to help US policymakers protect against war. Among other policy options, our recent peace game reflects that members of Congress favor allowing China to save face in certain situations, including by repurposing US military capabilities that could unnecessarily escalate tensions, while not appearing to accommodate China’s recalcitrance across the region. Going forward, members of Congress, as well as other political and military decision-makers, should continue to participate in peace games to generate policy options that help to balance the United States’ security commitments while de-escalating its security dilemma with China.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Dispute
Since World War II, China and Japan have lodged competing claims over five islands in the East China Sea, referred to as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. These islands, though uninhabited, are strategically important for several reasons. They sit astride a crucial regional shipping lane. They are also positioned on top of massive petroleum reserves. Finally, sovereignty over the islands allows leaders in both countries to satisfy unresolved war memories that breed heightened nationalism and shape foreign policies.
Despite diplomatic efforts, and in light of ambiguous international law, China and Japan have failed to establish a mechanism to manage conflicting sovereignty claims over the islands. In September 2010, for instance, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japan Coast Guard ship near the islands. The Japan Coast Guard detained the trawler’s captain, which prompted a sharp response from Chinese officials. Though Japan eventually released the trawler’s captain to de-escalate the conflict, China attempted to punish its behavior by disrupting rare earth metal exports to Japan. Two years later, the Japanese government nationalized three of the largest islands by purchasing them from private owners. Chinese officials responded by declaring an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea that included the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, extending the escalation.
This event encouraged President Barack Obama to clarify that mutual defense under Article 5 of the US-Japan defense treaty covers Japan’s claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden reconfirmed. Such reassurance is exceptional in the region, which is characterized by multiple US defense treaties. For example, US officials were ambiguous about America’s security commitments to the Philippines during its 2012 standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The United States’ reassurance of Japan comes at a price, however. It has exacerbated the Sino-US security dilemma, implying that US intervention in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute, while measured, could take on new meaning given the evolving Sino-US relationship. Liselotte Odgaard, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, warns of “the risk of miscalculation or error that could draw China, Japan, and the US into conflict.”
Using a Peace Game to Explore Attitudes in the US Congress
To observe strategic-level decision-making in the context of a territorial dispute in the East China Sea, and enabled by support from the Carnegie Corporation, we conducted a peace game among fifteen members of Congress from both political parties at the United States Institute of Peace in mid-July 2023. Our simulation largely replicated the 2010 crisis, adopting an “action,” “reaction,” and “counteraction” move sequence. This consisted of the initial crisis simulation—in this case a mid-air collision between Chinese and Japanese jets over the disputed islands—followed by a US response and China’s subsequent reaction.
We paired these iterative moves with periodic injects and challenged members of Congress to clarify assumptions, identity limitations and constraints, and discuss information requirements that enabled whole-of-government approaches to help de-escalate the crisis. The injects were calibrated to reflect either vertical (within crisis) or horizontal (beyond crisis) escalation. While the former could consist of Chinese and Japanese demands for an apology following the incident, the latter could consist of reports of Chinese naval exercises in the South China Sea or near Taiwan. We also incorporated misinformation on social media about the unfolding crisis to further stimulate uncertainty, thus modelling how the information environment can shape policy and strategy, escalate a crisis, and constrain leaders during conflict escalation.
This design provided for a dynamic, flexible, and responsive peace game refereed by experts from Cornell University and the United States Institute of Peace. Though our sample was bipartisan, reflecting all corners of the United States and a broad cross section of ideological beliefs, it was not representative of Congress. Members volunteered to participate in the peace game, introducing selection bias that prevents us from drawing sweeping generalizations from our observations. Yet our sample is extremely rare, offering a unique glimpse into the attitudes of policymaking elites that are informed by domain-specific expertise and experience. We further managed the potential for bias, especially priming—wherein experts inadvertently shape participants’ beliefs—by adopting free play. Following a short in-brief, expert facilitators managed discussion among congressional officials, asking questions during different moves, to maximize critical thinking. Facilitators captured observations in several ways, including move sheets, rapporteurs, and questionnaires.
Members of Congress Do Not Want War with China but Think It Is Possible
Our observations suggest that members of Congress adopt countervailing perspectives when assessing the implications of a Sino-Japanese dispute for US policy, as well as the possibility of a Sino-US war. On one hand, they do not believe a Sino-US war is inevitable given the flashpoint we studied, despite concerns from some corners of Washington and the Pentagon. Rather, participants echoed commentary from Jessica Chen Weiss, a sinologist at Cornell University, that Chinese leaders’ strident statements about US regional policy belie insecurity due to the costs that they may incur from their citizens for not exercising greater regional and global leadership. Indeed, research reflects that China’s approach to maritime disputes is often shaped by a calculation to balance domestic opinion, or what political scientists refer to as “audience costs,” with anticipated blowback globally.
Members of Congress also acknowledge the importance of public opinion, both in China and the United States, which studies show can moderate countries’ policies. Several participants cautioned that Americans, given two decades of conflict in Central Asia and the Middle East, are less likely to support military force against China unless it is clearly linked to a vital national security interest, such as the defense of Japan’s homeland from an attack. Several participants also noted that even Chinese citizens do not support a war with the United States, citing a recent study of public opinion in China. They also echoed a study conducted in China by Harvard University researchers suggesting de-escalation in the context of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute may be possible, should US officials seek third-party mediation through the United Nations and emphasize the costs of war.
Yet on the other hand, members of Congress believe that several factors could combine to spark a Sino-US war. First, the evolving Sino-US relationship, which appears to suggest a burgeoning shift in the global distribution of power for some participants, reinforces the need for US regional leadership during the crisis. Members of Congress involved in this game do not believe that the United States should accommodate China’s territorial claims in the East China Sea. Furthermore, by doing so, they believe that the United States risks undermining its status as a security guarantor of choice in the region. When the discussion focused on the risk and consequences of escalating this dispute to a broader conflict in support of Japan’s territorial claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, there was broad consensus among participants that China would be less likely to back down if confronted with a US ultimatum.
Second, Japan’s ongoing military modernization, while commended by some regional specialists including Jennifer Lind at Dartmouth College, further complicates US policy in the East China Sea. Discussions among members of Congress implied concerns over entrapment, wherein a “moral hazard” or escalatory behavior by Japan could unnecessarily result in a wider regional war between China and the United States. Japan’s heightened defense spending, coupled with Japanese citizens’ increasing concern about the possibility of US abandonment during conflict, could encourage officials in Tokyo to provoke tensions with China to the point that the United States is compelled to intervene to fulfill its treaty obligations. Indeed, the participants largely agreed that a threat of US military action could horizontally escalate the localized dispute into a Sino-US war in the South China Sea or over Taiwan.
Finally, members of Congress expressed concern about the way social media, enhanced by artificial intelligence, could potentially escalate a crisis to war. Following a key decision by participants to de-escalate the Sino-Japanese crisis by delaying a freedom-of-navigation operation through the South China Sea, thereby allowing China to save face, we incorporated an inject consisting of a “secretly recorded” audio message from a senior Japanese official. The official said that Japan “will prosecute the Chinese pilot under the full weight of Japanese law and correct the weakness Japan showed in 2010 by releasing the trawler captain.” Members of Congress further learned that US intelligence officials could not determine the veracity of the message and that it amassed 1.2 billion views globally in twenty-four hours, including more than five hundred million views in China. Although participants had previously decided to remove any perceived grounds for a Sino-US conflict given the crisis in the East China Sea, in this case by redirecting a US Navy destroyer away from the South China Sea, they agreed that the information environment further complicates US policy options and requires prudent judgment to manage. Hans Morgenthau once called prudence the “supreme virtue in global politics,” and our peace game reinforced his earlier observation.
Implications for US Policy in Asia
Our peace game shows that members of Congress are interested in learning more about the potential risks for a Sino-US war given existing flashpoints across the region, including in the East China Sea. If confronted with the scenario we explored, the participants are better prepared to de-escalate the crisis through multilateral engagement, including with global and regional institutions such as the United Nations and Association for Southeast Asian Nations. In addition to third-party mediation, members of Congress discussed the importance of bilateral engagements with both Japan and China, which would be designed to minimize the potential for a moral hazard and cultivate a shared responsibility for regional security. But members of Congress are also concerned that China’s revisionist behaviors, coupled with Japan’s remilitarization and deepfakes on the internet, could combine to spark a Sino-US war. Several participants even drew an analogy to the way political, military, and social forces came together to ignite World War I.
These observations suggest the importance of commissioning additional peace games to expose more US policymakers to the complex dynamics surrounding territorial disputes in Asia that could result in a Sino-US conflict. Future peace games should also incorporate representatives across US agencies, especially the Departments of State and Defense, as well as senior US military leaders deployed to the region. The intent of incorporating these representatives is not to militarize peace games, which would be counter to their purpose. Rather, including a broader, informed, and consequential audience will enable a far-reaching discussion for how US policymakers can combine all elements of national power to help de-escalate crises and reassure allies and partners while preventing war with China. Given US elected officials often perceive crisis response options generated by the military as “too little, too late”—implying they are slowly planned, irrelevant for achieving political aims, and likely to signal precisely the type of escalation that policymakers attempt to avoid—it will also help bridge a civil-military divide. Even so, some military practitioners may agree with Sir Michael Howard, a military historian, that peace is an “invention,” reflecting the prevalence of conflict across time. Yet the purpose of any conflict simulation, to paraphrase then US Secretary of War Elihu Root, is to preserve stability by exposing senior political and military officials to conditions that could escalate to war if not managed prudently.
Paul Lushenko is the director of special operations at the US Army War College and senior fellow at Cornell University’s Tech Policy Institute.
Keith L. Carter is an associate professor at the US Naval War College and senior fellow at Cornell University’s Tech Policy Institute.
Steve Israel is director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University and served as member of Congress for eight terms (2001–2017).
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
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