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In July 2030, China deploys civilians and military forces on one of the Senkaku Islands, declaring a no-fly, no-sail zone and threatening to use force if the perimeter is violated. Tokyo condemns Beijing and vows to defend its territory with its amphibious units — hopefully with U.S. military support.

That was the prelude to a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) online war game conducted July 22. Over 400 participants, including myself, fully enjoyed the exercise. The Canon Institute for Global Studies plays similar war games and I learned a lot from this well-organized event.

My views on what happened in the game are ambivalent. Red Team continued occupying the island and enforcing the exclusion zone. Blue Team sent its amphibious units to regain the island, which was now surrounded by Red Team’s cordon. Both teams attacked each other’s command and information systems.

As the battle intensified, Blue Team tried to gain air superiority while Red Team continued attacking the remaining Japanese vessels with limited success. Blue Team continued its formidable underwater operations while Red Team finally attacked and damaged Blue Team’s aircraft carrier. Eventually the battle reached a stalemate.

While not predictive, the game raised more questions than answers. The outcome was extremely ominous for Japan. Would the U.S. run the risk of a major war against China over such a small island in the Pacific? Would China bomb Okinawa? And, ultimately, could Japan defend itself? The following are my takeaways.

Team objectives

Red Team’s objectives were to take Uotsuri Island, to establish an exclusion zone or territorial control, and, finally, to remind Blue Team (Japan and the United States), by consolidating its fait accompli, that it can't win a war against Red Team.

The most intriguing part was that Red Team’s Central Military Commission initially allowed its forces to attack Japanese vessels, but not to go after U.S. vessels or aircraft. Red Team, even after attacking a U.S. aircraft carrier, was reluctant to bomb U.S. and Japanese military bases in Japan.

Blue Team had three objectives: To defend Japan and its territories; to reestablish a territorial control over the island and, finally, to avoid fighting World War III against Red Team. Although the last objective made sense, it limited the Blue Team’s subsequent military options.

Few East Asia hands

The great majority of 400 participants in the war game appeared to be smart but ordinary American scholars and researchers specialized or interested in international security issues. Only a few individuals had backgrounds in East Asian studies.

In this game, the participants were requested to vote for several military options for the two teams. That was particularly useful for Tokyo because the outcome of the game may reflect, at least partially, how ordinary American decision-makers without backgrounds in East Asian studies would make tough choices.

Aversion to a major war

Both teams were extremely cautious to avoid any offensive options that could lead to an uncontrollable major war. Even if they had to escalate, they would choose a prudent phased escalation and tried not to directly hit each other’s strategic targets.

The flip side of this cautiousness, however, is the credibility of the Blue Team alliance. If the allies don't support one another in a critical moment out of fear it could trigger an unexpected escalation leading to a major war, it could ultimately kill the alliance.

Okinawa not attacked

By the same token, this kind of cautiousness could prevent a disastrous battle outcome. Red Team’s option to go after the Blue Teams bases in Japan was dismissed by 62 percent of the 400 participants.

What would happen if Red Team decided to bomb U.S. bases in Japan, for example Kadena Air Force Base? Would such an action constitute an armed attack against Japan? The answer is yes. U.S. facilities in Japan are located on Japanese territory and such an attack would automatically constitute armed aggression against Japan, which would authorize Japan to use force to defend itself.

Senkakus abandoned

At the final stage, an option for Blue Team to use special operations units against Red presence on the occupied island was dismissed by two-thirds of the 400 participants. The poll showed 68 percent preferred going after Red Team’s fleet around the Senkakus instead. This could mean that Blue Team would not only endanger the operation by Japanese amphibious units to regain the island, but also perpetuate Red Team’s control over the island and exclusion zone. Such an outcome could infuriate some people in Japan and inflame their anti-American sentiment.

While not predictive, the game highlighted the fact that Japan would have no easy options in an East China Sea crisis. Tokyo shouldn't expect U.S. forces to “fight to the death” to regain the Senkakus. If China unilaterally starts landing operation against the Senkakus, Japan must be prepared to fight with limited U.S. support.

Japan must be able to deter China’s move against the Senkakus. If China occupies the islands and attacks U.S. or Self-Defense Force bases in Japan, it will wake Japan up and Beijing would automatically become the aggressor. Although China may win the battle over the Senkakus, it would eventually lose the war for the international community's support.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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