Competition is Inevitable, War is Not: Using Games to Rethink the U.S.-Chinese Relationship

TableTopExercise

Elected leaders need tabletop exercises, crisis simulations, and wargames to help them visualize and describe modern strategy. From questions about technology and intellectual property to food security and economic concerns, the new era of great-power competition transcends narrow bureaucratic definitions of national security that defined much of the Cold War. U.S. military might alone will not deter the Chinese Communist Party. Rather, creative combinations of military and non-military activities that cut across traditional congressional committee authorities will likely prove more effective at deterring China and capable of translating American power into enduring competitive advantage. 

This essay outlines our opening gambit to build a series of games designed to better understand 21st-century competition along these lines. It builds on previous calls to bring wargaming to Congress and to usher in a new era of strategic analysis. First, we review the pilot tabletop exercise we ran with the Republican Issue Conference and plan to run with House Democrats to ensure we keep foreign policy bipartisan. Second, we discuss our plan to build on this initiative to engage multiple congressional committees over the next two years. These analytical exercises do not replace the good work being done in the executive branch. Rather, we see them as a complementary way of bridging branches of government as well as engaging the American public in a larger debate about the future. 

Would You Like to Play a Game?

Good strategy starts by analyzing competitive decision-making. Any research — from historical cases to trend analysis and quantitative models — that helps leaders recreate this clash of wills provides a simulation against which to develop plans. If you can visualize and describe competition, you can develop ideas about how best to increase your chances of winning while favorably shaping your adversaries’ choices. This logic makes games and strategy natural bedfellows. To quote legendary designer Sid Meier, the best games replicate a series of interesting decisions. Players weigh tradeoffs and calibrate risk to gain an advantage. 

 

 

Architects of competitive strategy during the Cold War like Herman Kahn and Andrew Marshall would have agreed. They saw games as a way of understanding the complexities of interdependent decision-making between rival states with entrenched bureaucracies. Strategy is a false promise if it doesn’t illustrate opportunity costs and encourage debate. That is, unlike a traditional tactical wargame that evaluates competing courses of action against static evaluation criteria, there is a distinct category of strategy games that helps senior leaders generate and test ideas. The result is strategy by deliberation as opposed to by fiat. It is better to replicate and understand hard strategic choices today than wait for them in the future.

Applied to the unfolding competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, games can play a critical role. They can help both parties in Congress and the American public better understand how China competes and why it matters to protect an open 21st century. Strategy games can help elected officials play a creative role and visualize the types of hearings, legislation, and budget priorities most likely to gain a competitive advantage and how best to engage the constituents they serve. 

Fast Dragon

With this end state in mind, members of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party asked the two of us — both alumni of the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission — to develop an unclassified tabletop exercise. The event was designed to help members of Congress think about modern strategy and the challenges the United States faces in confronting the threat from the Chinese Communist Party. The starting point was a scenario much discussed in the news: Chinese military action design to compel Taiwan and achieve reunification by any means necessary. After a mix of gray-zone activities and military exercises, China rapidly moves to blockade Taiwan and attack its political center of gravity, hoping to shock the world and the Taiwanese people. We labeled this scenario Fast Dragon.

The team carefully constructed a road to crisis to help leaders think about competition before conflict and what is required to deter future wars. In other words, the game used an imagined war to help Congress think about winning the peace. The scenario illustrated how China outflanks the United States using a mix of economic coercion, development assistance including infrastructure projects, and technology investments alongside intellectual property theft to gain a long-term position of advantage. The intent was to show that Taiwan is part of a larger competition. In this competition, Beijing seeks to degrade American access and influence in the Asia-Pacific and drive a wedge between the United States and countries China needs for resources in the Global South. 

This long view of a short war helps leaders think about strategy in time. Failing to shape competition in the near term creates strategic risk in the long term. It also helps prevent hard choices from becoming tragic choices. Winning a war in Asia that destroys the American economy and sees critical infrastructure associated with power, transportation, water, and sanitation crippled by cyber attacks is a pyrrhic victory at best. It is a civilization-ending gambit at worst if states cross the nuclear threshold.

The first game was held March 19, 2023, at the GOP Issue Conference, an annual gathering of House Republicans, but with the intent to hold the same exercise with elected Democrats and independents. Members watched as the team showed the road to war and a possible opening Chinese invasion in the midst of a blockade. Players — who included leaders from multiple committees — then deliberated on diplomatic, economic, military, and homeland security response options. Based on their choices, the team used a mix of computer-generated models and professional judgment to adjudicate the results and facilitate a conference-wide discussion.

 

 

Player choices about diplomatic engagement determined how large the U.S. coalition defending Taiwan became and whether America fought alone — something it hasn’t done for 100 years — or as part of a larger coalition. Choices about military responses determined the type of guidance that would be given through the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the commander of Indo-Pacific Command. The combination of diplomatic and military decisions allowed the team to run 36 scenarios in Command, a common commercial gaming engine used in multiple defense establishments around the world. The team then integrated economic and homeland fallout into scenarios based on research that included reviewing major market downturns associated with military conflict since World War I and assessments of critical infrastructure vulnerabilities from the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission. The result was that no matter what the players selected, there was a ready scenario that helped elected officials rapidly view and understand the military outcome, economic fallout, and district-level impacts. 

In this manner, the game drove a larger conversation and helped members discuss the essence of strategy and how best to win the peace. The clear consensus was a need to better prepare the United States to engage in competition and support deterrence. Real questions about political will and budgets — if the United States should fight and how best to resource competition given historically high debt levels and addiction to deficit spending — were met with clear answers about tradeoffs. This type of open, honest dialogue is something the Chinese Communist Party cannot match and is an enduring source of American strength. 

More Games, Better Strategy 

We view the opening game as the beginning of a larger effort to recreate bipartisan dialogue about competitive strategy. National security and common sense can trump polarization. We owe that to the American people and a world weary of more war. The path to get there starts with expanding the number of games that visualize and describe modern strategy. 

First, we welcome an opportunity to run the same game with House Democrats and afterwards to have a series of ongoing bipartisan games. The more diverse and inclusive the better. We want to see hawks and doves debating strategy and learning to appreciate each other’s perspective in the process. Strategy games can help tone down the noise and encourage mutual understanding and respect even where large differences prevail. 

Second, we think that each committee with national security interests needs games tailored to their portfolio. The House Committee on Homeland Security could assess the cyber resilience of both our military mobility capabilities and our national critical infrastructure and its ability to protect our economic productivity in the face of malicious cyber activity. Even more challenging is figuring out how to enable these capabilities at the same time. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs could explore how to counter malign influence by authoritarian regimes like China through countering their access into civil society globally. The committee could also play a series of alliance games to better understand the perspective of our different coalition partners and how it shapes strategic objectives. The House Agriculture Committee could oversee an excursion run on how land purchases by the Chinese Communist Party in the United States and abroad could affect future food security. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee could explore how a mix of market incentives, industrial policy, and patent protections shape the race for disruptive technologies. Imagine if Apple, Microsoft, and Intel were Soviet — not American — companies when they started and how it would have shaped the Cold War. The Financial Services, Natural Resources, and Energy and Commerce Committees could explore what an actual economic war and race for resources short of armed conflict would look like and how best to protect American citizens and businesses from its fallout. These non-traditional games would complement more conventional games for armed services, intelligence, and homeland security, thus helping members visualize and describe competitive strategy. 

Conducting an ongoing series of games will lead to better strategy only if they create diverse perspectives and honest dialogue. The purpose of the congressional game series we propose is to encourage debate and dissent in pursuit of advantage. The stratagems that emerge and survive the marketplace of ideas and public discussion are more likely to win the peace. That is ultimately the goal of competition and deterrence — the north star of American foreign policy.

 

 

Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D., is a professor of strategic studies at the School of Advanced Warfighting in the Marine Corps University and a senior fellow for future war, gaming, and strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a U.S. Army veteran.

Mark Montgomery is the senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation in the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy. He previously served as the executive director for the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission and retired as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. 

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Milton Hamilton

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