Conflict in the East China Sea: Home Board Game Edition

December 16, 2013
Don't sink my battleship. (photo: Derek Gavey)
Don’t sink my battleship. (Photo by Derek Gavey)

There was a near collision between a Chinese warship and a U.S. guided missile cruiser in the East China Sea on Dec. 5 (though just reported).  A little over a week earlier the Chinese government had announced the establishment of an “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) in the same area, covering the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.  Although China, the United States and Japan have in varying degrees taken actions to prevent a sudden escalation over the ADIZ, the general sense was that the ADIZ raises the risk of deadly accidents in the airspace.  Now it seems that China, or at least Chinese naval commanders, are taking actions that raise the risk of naval accidents, as well.

Here is a game you can play at home — though only if you seriously lack for good board games, since this one isn’t much fun — that summarizes and illustrates the standard political science take on what is going on here.  It can be useful for thinking about the conflict, both for what it gets right and for what it may get wrong or leave out.

The game:  You play with one other person.  There is some “prize” at stake, which is something you both want.  Say, control over what movie to watch that night.  There is also a “punishment outcome,” which is costly for both people.  For example, no movie watching at home for three months.

To play the game, you need a spinner on which you can mark different distances from 12 o’clock to later times.

Now the game.  You each privately write down a number between zero and 100, and then show the other what you wrote down.  The person who writes down the larger number “wins.”  (If you both happen to write down the same number, you flip a coin.)

“Winning” means this:  You take the number written down by the loser (the smaller number) as the percentage chance of the punishment outcome, and you use some randomizing device to decide if the punishment outcome occurs.  For instance, if the loser wrote down 10, then you could mark off 10 percent of the clock from 12 — the first six minutes — and then spin the spinner to see if lands in those six minutes.

If the punishment outcome occurs, then that’s what’s implemented.  This is why the game isn’t that much fun.  If the punishment outcome does not occur, the winner gets the prize — here, choice of the movie to watch.

Okay, how should you play this game?  To make it interesting and analogous to the US/China/Japan conflict in the East China Sea, we have to suppose that you really would be committed to implementing the punishment outcome if dice or spinner called for it.  In that case, the number you write down probably ought to reflect how much you care about getting to choose the movie for one night versus how bad you would find it to not watch any movies for three months.  If  you don’t care at all about what to watch tonight, then just write down zero so there is no chance of the punishment outcome.  But if you care a lot, so much that you are willing to run serious risk of the punishment outcome, then it could make sense to write down something greater than zero, or even as much as 100.

This is what Thomas Schelling, in his Cold War studies of the impact of nuclear weapons on U.S.-Soviet disputes, called a “competition in risk-taking.”  Later work in the same tradition realized that this game is a weird type of auction — the players bid for the prize in probabilities of the bad outcome and the prize goes to the highest bidder, but both players pay the loser’s bid (the risk of disaster).  (There are classic academic treatments by Barry Nalebuff and Robert Powell.)  The outcome will be determined by two things:  first, the preferences of the bidders, or how much they care about winning the prize versus the bad outcome, and second, chance.  The side that cares more is more likely to get the prize if disaster doesn’t occur.  But the bad outcome — which is military escalation or war in our real world case — is more likely the more both care about the prize.

How does this apply to the conflict in the East China Sea?  There are two main “prizes” at stake, or at least this is what analysts have been suggesting.  There is obviously the question of who controls the disputed sea rocks, which is a matter of nationalist pride for China and Japan but not something the United States has any real intrinsic interest in.  And there is the “prize” of the extent of U.S. naval presence in the area, which the U.S. government does seem to care about.  The bad outcome is a deadly accident at sea or in the air that engages nationalist anger and reputational concerns, so generating much larger risks of escalation and the possibility of a limited war.  If these recent actions are deliberate on the part of top leadership, then by this analysis the Chinese government is signaling that they are willing to run more risk of the bad outcome over these two issues than they used to.  This could be because they see their military capability as improved (which makes the conflict outcome potentially less bad) or because they just care more than they used to about the islands or U.S. naval presence (perhaps because government legitimacy depends more and more on satisfying increasing nationalist sentiment in the population).

Of the many things the board game version leaves out of the picture, two are particularly worth noting.  First, the more China runs risk and so signals a stronger intention to control the islands and this sea, the more likely that Japan concludes that it needs to seriously re-arm, possibility at some point including consideration of the nuclear option.  This could make the Chinese government’s problem trickier than in the board game version.  However, if the prospect of an arms race and escalation of tension with Japan would actually be appealing for a Chinese leadership interested in using the conflict to foster a domestic nationalist reaction, then Japanese rearmament could be a feature not a bug.  This would translate in the game to being willing to run a very high risk of the conflict outcome.  To date, the Chinese leadership has appeared to see nationalist mobilization at home as a double-edged sword, since it could get out of control and threaten the regime itself — see the papers and book project by Jessica Weiss, a political scientist at Yale University, on this.  Hopefully that will continue.

Second, the board game version has only two players, whereas the East China Sea problem has three main ones.  The United States and Japan have both shared and conflicting interests over how much risk to run and how to distribute the costs of countering Chinese brinkmanship.  If the U.S. (aka Uncle Sucker) decides that only we can ride to the rescue and that if we don’t, somehow Japan will become a pawn of China — and seriously, this is what a lot of the establishment foreign policy commentary/hype is suggesting these days — then Japan will have much less reason to do anything on its own.

James Fearon is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University, and a senior fellow Stanford's Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies. His main research interest is large-scale armed conflict, both between states and within states.
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John Sides · December 16, 2013