The Buzz

This is How China Could Dominate the South China Sea Without a War

Hegemon is a wickedly interactive multi-player/multi-round geostrategic game devised by the Potomac Foundation. Each player represents a country, fielding certain economic and military resources and possessing (secret) objectives.

Ranged across a gods-eye planetary gameboard, Hegemon is the 'softwar' wild-child born of hardcore videogamers and grizzled defense planners. Don't be fooled by its simplistic initial game conditions; things get tricky, fast. Just as in real life, events build upon themselves like fractals. Players bluff and second-guess others' intentions, alliances are formed and broken and decisions need to be made in a fog of uncertainty.

This northern summer's Hegemon simulations centered on the South China Sea. Every game unfolded differently, but the world has a certain ineluctable logic of strategy imposed by objectives, facts on the ground and political will: great powers gonna do great-powering. China looms ever-larger on the South China Sea gameboard tiles; it has the initiative. Because some players secretly fear war and others do not, Hegemon becomes a test of wits where every player suffers from information asymmetry, never sure how their counterparts will react.

Prediction is hard, to paraphrase Niels Bohr, especially of the intentions of other people.

Ten key takeaways from Hegemon:

1: Wargames' needn't involve war. In Potomac's experience, just half of the South China Sea simulations erupt into violence within 20 years (four turns of five years each). Diplomacy and deal-making are crucial. Personalities matter. With a bunch of navy and air force captains at the keyboard, things often turn kinetic. With political science professors, expect different outcomes.

2: If China plays a long game with diplomatic initiative, it can win without fighting. Regional nations respect, depend on and fear China, and they are inclined to bandwagon with it. China towers over them in actual power so it can afford to be magnanimous. Over many years consistent Chinese reassurance could work. In that case the U.S. would end up a 'present but irrelevant' Asian outsider.

3: But China may not have such patience, and not every neighbor will join the Sinosphere. In a classic security dilemma, one country's deterrence is another's threat. Even as some players bandwagon, others will balance. Under most scenarios Japan sticks with the U.S. alliance. One striking message of the game is how easily Asia could drift toward a bipolar equilibrium. Just about every simulation ends up with some sort of red-versus-blue alignment.


4: One game outcome that is unlikely is a third bloc of independent or 'green' countries. ASEAN is easily divided. Indonesia is a complex and unpredictable actor, something with which Australia, Malaysia and Singapore must all contend. Trust and transparency are rare. Cheating works only once. And don't go for 'the fallacy of the last turn.' The Potomac team never lets you relax.


5: Vietnam is hard to read. It cares about its coastline and will defy China's unilateral domination of the South China Sea. But it also must share a land border with Beijing, and Hanoi might bargain away some of its objectives for a reduced Chinese presence in adjacent military regions.


6: So might Moscow, and that's where things start getting really interesting. Although it is not a South China Sea state, Russia's alignment affects the power balance in the region. It is a major weapons supplier too. Ultimately the moves in Hegemon express themselves in configurations of bases, ships, missiles, etc. There's no sure thing, but a preponderance of modernized local forces is needed to win each battle sequence. Russian hardware helps.


7: A new Pacific war would look an awful lot like...the last Pacific war? In nearly all simulations the front becomes the first island chain. Taiwan is 'the cork in the bottle', but only for as long as it resists reunification. The Philippines is prime real estate. Although a small economy, it's a vast archipelagic space of 100 million people, thousands of islands, and airports and harbors galore.


8: Therefore, if the U.S. is to exert influence in the South China Sea, it will need strategic depth across the Philippines. It must re-learn the lessons of island chain warfare. Runway repair sappers will be busy. The U.S. may also need to replicate China's own A2/AD tactics. China will have toys on its South China Sea tiles, but these also make targets. As the game unfolds, there's an unmistakable feeling that bases and battle groups become tripwires that the U.S. and China are daring each other to ping.


9: Hegemon feels rushed and urgent. That's an artificial but necessary limitation of the game. At times it's more crisis management than grand strategy. But quick moves do happen in real life. A year ago China didn't have major Spratly Island bases. In 1962 JFK had days (or hours) to deal with the Cuba nuclear crisis.

10: Don't overlook the nuclear possibility. Tactical nuclear weapons are militarily useful if they succeed as an escalation-stopper. That's a scary bet to make in a chaotic high-stakes confrontation. The threshold for small nukes is alarmingly low (about 20 tonnes of TNT equivalent, which looks like this). But would anyone really use them? That's the whole point of Hegemon's devilish dilemma: you'll never know.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here