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Modeling Asia: An East China Sea Simulation

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Editor’s Note: After the essay, readers can examine the simulation prep sheet Professor McKee uses in her course, two country studies Berea College student groups wrote as part of the simulation assignment, and three student reflection papers class members wrote after the simulation’s conclusion.

Tensions in the East China Sea have risen dramatically in the last decade between China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and a number of Southeast Asian countries. This conflict has been driven primarily by territorial contestations over islands each country claims as their own, for example, the Senkakau/Diaoyu Islands the Japanese and Chinese both claim. Add to the fray growing nationalist sentiments in many East Asian countries, a United States tied to Japan by treaty, unintentional military clashes around the disputed islands both by sea and air, and the potential for hydrocarbon resources in the East and South China Seas. Though these islands have only been a minor irritant in Sino–East Asian relations, concerns about China’s growing military power and the future of security in the region have escalated regional tensions and created a flashpoint for future conflict.

Teaching foreign policy requires guiding students to see political situations from multiple perspectives. An understanding of historical contexts, trade relations, military power, goals of administrations, and domestic politics is crucial to explaining current foreign relations and being able to predict possible conflict or cooperation. The creation of successful foreign policy doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions or conclusions, and students can better grasp this difficulty by vicariously experiencing the processes of foreign policymaking. In order to create this kind of application-based learning experience, I developed a foreign policy crisis simulation that has become a key component of my US–East Asian Foreign Policy course. The simulation has garnered positive feedback from students of the course and has become a selling point for students enrolling in the class. What follows is an introduction to the simulation, which, though designed for undergraduate students, could easily be adapted for high school students as well. Though I will discuss the semester-long course with the simulation added, it has also been condensed for a four-week daily summer course.

The Scaffolding

Any simulation can be broken down into three main stages: preparation work, simulation, and debriefing. The first step in any preparatory work is to establish what you want students to learn from the engagement. Specific learning goals for this simulation were to demonstrate the decision-making challenges that arise in a political crisis; to demonstrate the role that history, culture, and (mis)trust play in contemporary regional interactions; and to demonstrate how conflicting interests can complicate peace negotiations, all within the context of relations specifically between China, Japan, North and South Korea, and Taiwan.

These learning goals were all considered when creating preparatory assignments. Students are first randomly sorted into country groups that they will represent over the course of the class. Their roles are then even further specialized, with group members working on economics, domestic politics, military issues, and foreign relations. The beginning pace of the class is organized into roughly one-week units on each country. For each country, I give an introductory lecture on the history of regional and US relations. Students then teach one class session on the current politics of their country. I work with the different groups on first establishing the learning goals of their lesson and then deciding how they will work toward these goals. They are encouraged to be creative in devoting the class time to both content and application. For example, groups spend the first part of the two-hour class period dividing the lecture among themselves according to their area of specialization. The second half of their class period is devoted to testing the country knowledge from the lecture by playing Jeopardy and Bingo, or completing crossword puzzles the students designed themselves. Though students initially find the task of filling a two-hour class period daunting, it is an important step since teaching a topic requires a more in-depth understanding than simple comprehension. This assignment helps familiarize them with the “expert role” they will play later in the simulations, and, for other students in the class, the sharing of knowledge about every country helps prevent students from becoming immersed onlyin their assigned country while sacrificing learning about the other countries.

Students quickly assume their expert roles for their particular countries. As they become more familiar with their country’s history, they develop a level of emotional engagement that is difficult to duplicate through more conventional didactic or even small group instructional techniques. Their knowledge of World War II is often limited to an American lens, with many believingthe conflict began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As they learn Japanese expansion began long before 1941, they also come to see that the legacy of this decades-old conflict continues to inform relations between and among East Asian countries.

After working as a class through the introductory lectures and current political contexts for each country, each group is then tasked with creating a portfolio for their country. The first document that goes into these portfolios establishes their assigned country’s national goals. Students work together in class, sharing information about their areas of specialization with their teammates, as I circulate and guide conversations about how countries determine their national interests and how to further them. This assignment encourages students to engage analytically and go beyond the national media’s interpretation of a country’s actions to try to better understand why a country may choose to act the way it does. For example, China’s actions in the East China Sea are often portrayed by US media in terms of how they may negatively affect America’s national and regional interests in the East China Sea, rather than how China’s expansion of military assets could be interpreted as the rational actions of a rising power. Once students understand that the fundamental goal of any country is to further its national interests, they begin to interpret those actions as being more rational. This also pushes students to understand domestic political considerations and to understand how the varying governments in the region have different considerations. For example, domestic public opinion and approval matter more in Japan than in North Korea, and governmental decisions are bound to varying degrees by these particular political considerations. Students also begin to understand that while countries have regional and even international aspirations, political leaders in each nation may have differing incentive structures. For example, the China team realizes that the legitimacy of their regime is strongly tied to economic performance, whereas in Taiwan, legitimacy comes from elections. The summary of national goals is a collaborative one-page writing assignment.

Students also complete a country brief that goes into their group country portfolio. Each student is responsible for writing their own specialized sections, editing the sections together, and writing an executive summary for the brief. The brief is divided into sections that mirror students’ areas of specialization, which students write and are graded on individually. Each team member is required to read every section and then work with other team members outside of class to edit the brief together and craft the executive summary, which requires the group to be analytical about how all the parts of their knowledge fit together. For example, if students are writing about the Chinese economy, that particular section will first report China’s GDP , GDP per capita, economic growth over time, and levels of economic development based upon urban/rural and geographic differences. They are also required to interpret this information and state what China’s growing economic strength means for the leadership’s domestic political legitimacy and why it may make their neighbors less likely to trust them as their military strength grows simultaneously. Each section of the brief should be roughly five well-researched pages, and the executive summary is limited to one page. While they are initially glad to hear the writing is relatively short, they soon find it difficult to condense the information they have learned into its most vital components. This space limitation forces them to sift through all they have learned to focus on the crucial information about their area. I review and grade the portfolios before posting them to our online class platform, Moodle, for other groups to use as a study resource for the simulation. I grade each student in the group individually on the sections of the portfolio they produce relative to their assigned expertise. This practice helps mitigate the negative effects of group work (though it also provides an opportunity to talk about free-riding!). In further preparation for the simulation, each student in the course reads every country portfolio and is quizzed on the content.

After these preparatory assignments are completed and students have a foundation for modeling their country’s behavioral norms and anticipating behavioral norms of other actors, a pre-simulation briefing reminds students of a couple of things: First, there is a range of realistic behavior for each state, and their goal is to stay within that range. This stipulation is necessary to prevent the groups from introducing unlikely behavior into the simulation. Just like in any other role-playing theater, it’s important to be realistic. Second, students also always want to know how they “win.” I discourage this type of language because it risks trivializing the event into just a game, but tell students that their objective in the simulation is to move closer to the national goals they established and advance their country’s interests. I also encourage students to think about countries, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), etc., outside the immediate region. I have teaching assistants and upper-level students prepped and on hand to take the roles of other countries and organizations, like the United States, the United Nations, or ASEAN countries.

Simulating a Crisis

In a regular fifteen-week semester, I reserve two weeks for the simulation and debriefing (that’s four two-hour class periods, in my case). The simulation begins with a briefing I conduct that introduces the crisis scenario. For this simulation, I tell them that China has moved five destroyers into the Taiwan Strait and off the coast of the contested islands with Japan. These are all the details that are provided. Recently, I rented a Giant Traveling Map of Asia from the National Geographic Society to use with this simulation. The twenty-four-by-thirty-six-foot map is placed on the floor, and students can stand and move place markers around on the map. I find the map useful for helping students visualize the geography of the area where the crisis is unfolding and leading them to a better understanding of the geopolitics of the region. I use place markers to indicate the positioning of the Chinese ships, American military forces, shipping routes, and Air Defense Identification Zones.

The first move of the simulation is for each country group to meet and write a document to add to their portfolio that discusses two issues: first, why this action signifies a potential crisis, and second, how countries could use this crisis as an opportunity to further their pre-established national interests. For example, the Japan team may see this as an opportunity to test the resolve behind the US–Japan Security Treaty or for the Shinzō Abe administration to domestically justify a revision of Article 9 of the Constitution. How the action of the simulation unfolds is up to them, though action in the past has followed fairly predictable patterns. Countries call on and confer with their various allies. Japan and Taiwan (the two states that view their sovereignty as under threat) jointly call for a security summit (sometimes hosted by South Korea) and invite all countries to attend in order to first attempt a diplomatically negotiated end to the crisis. This summit typically ends without resolution, as students begin to realize that each country pursuing its own interests means a quick and easy resolution will be difficult. By this point, students have learned the stages of conflict escalation and then may proceed to consider economic sanctions or will call on the United Nations for a resolution condemning China’s actions. After discussing these next steps, they realize that sanctions will take time to work (if they ever do) and that the United Nations cannot formally condemn the actions of a Security Council member. As they work through possible actions and reactions, they are reminded that the longer the crisis takes to resolve and the longer the Chinese ships remain where they are, the more likely accidental interaction between fishing and/or transport ships becomes and the likelihood for unintentional conflict increases.

In the past, I have chosen to play the role of the United States for two main reasons. First, I prefer in this course for students to learn more about Asian countries than about the US, with which they are likely already more familiar. Second, since the US is tied to Japan through treaty and has a large military presence in South Korea, the decisions it makes in this simulation are a crucial piece of information in the East Asian countries’ decision-making process. Because of American global involvement and reliance on China for trade, its reaction to these events may differ depending on a variety of current circumstances. To date, I have chosen to play the US as quick to condemn but slow to militarily intervene, even when pressed by its allies. This behavior reflects, at least in the Barack Obama years, the prevailing Japanese doubt about the extent of America’s commitment to coming to their aid in a military crisis, given its ties to China through trade. This stance has worked well in the past and has centered the action on decisions of East Asian countries rather than on decisions the US makes regarding the crisis.

As the simulation unfolds, to demonstrate the concept of two-level games (that foreign policy is always happening within consideration of domestic politics and vice versa), groups are presented with “challenges.” These challenges are designed to introduce an extra level of complexity and can include the following: an upcoming election in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea; conflicting citizen protests in various parts of their countries against both military engagement and China’s perceived territorial aggression; a call from the United Nations for a quick and peaceful resolution; negative national and international media coverage; or a buildup of Russian forces near the Sakhalin Islands. I have my teaching assistant distribute these challenges as students are working through the crisis to increase tension for resolution. The final challenge is the same for all countries—oil shipments to Northeast Asia from the Persian Gulf have ceased until the crisis is resolved, which intensifies the time constraints of the crisis, given all the countries involved rely on those resources to fuel their economies and their militaries.

How and when the simulation concludes is largely up to the students. There may or may not be a show of force. There may be a negotiation that makes all countries somewhat happy. There may be some countries that gain a great deal and some that lose a great deal. The conclusion ends when the immediate crisis is resolved, though students realize that the short-term solution doesn’t necessarily mean the conflict is entirely resolved. The other way the simulation could end is in all-out war, but (luckily) that has never happened. This gives me an opportunity to ask them in the debriefing why they thought war was not an option they wanted to pursue.


The conclusion of any simulation should include a debriefing period during which students learn the decisionmaking processes of other groups in order to make connections between the simulation and the theoretical concepts of the course. I ask students to write a two-page reflective essay in which they discuss the process of decision-making in their groups and the outcomes of their decisions. They also consider what information was missing when making their decisions and which decisions they would change (if any) given an iteration of the simulation. They also write about whether the individual personalities of students in their group affected outcomes in their group. Debriefing involves “talking about the experiences, analyzing them, evaluating them, and integrating them into one’s cognitive and conscious base.”1 The debriefing takes some skill in guiding students toward connecting their experience in the simulation with the conclusions you want them to make that will satisfy the activity’s learning objectives; luckily, there are simulation designers who have written extensively and helpfully about debriefing, particularly with the use of journals.2

Once students have completed their reflective essays, we discuss their essays together as a class. They often learn of secret alliances that formed, plans that were hatched, or other information that may have changed the calculations of their decisions had they been aware of it. During the simulation, students are free to move between a couple of classrooms and choose what actions will be revealed or hidden fromother groups, such as high-level state meetings. This demonstrates that there is never perfect information in any crisis decision-making context, and that can alter the rational behavior of actors. We also review each group’s general and crisis-specific goals, and discuss which country was most successful in furthering its national interests through the crisis. Students are quick to realize that while short-term goals may have been achieved, such as resolving the crisis without armed conflict or by repelling China’s aggression, there are long-term consequences that can come from this interaction, specifically an erosion of trust. Many teams report they would predict increasing anti-Chinese rhetoric and support for increased security measures in their countries.

The grading challenges of this simulation have largely been mitigated by dividing the students and teams into specialty areas and grading the parts of assignments individually. Though group work can be challenging for instructors to grade and for students to engage in, the creative outcomes and critical thinking that are a result of the simulation experience are worth the challenges. Simulations can offer students a hands-on learning experience about any region of the world, but incorporating a simulation into a course about Asia will offer students the kind of interactive opportunity to learn about this part of the world they may not have outside of your classroom. Like any teaching method, there is a learning curve to designing simulations,as well as challenges to consider in the planning and implementation stages. The potential learning benefits of a simulation, however, are worth the effort.3

Readings on Simulation Design:

Loggins, Julie A. “Simulating the Foreign Policy Decision-Making Process in the Undergraduate Classroom.” PS: Political Science and Politics42, no. 2 (2009): 401–407.

Grummel, John. “Using Simulation to Teach Decision-Making within the Policy Process.” PS: Political Science and Politics36, no. 4 (2003): 787–789.

Kahn, Melvin A., and Kathleen M. Perez. “The Game of Politics Simulation: An Exploratory Study.” Journal of Political Science Education5, no. 4 (2009): 332–349. “Thematic Issue: Simulations in Political Science.” Journal of Political Science Education9, no. 2 (2013).

Young, Joseph K. “Simulating Two-Level Negotiations.” International Studies Perspectives7, no. 1 (2006): 77–82.

Simulation Supplements: Statecraft( is an online game that has teams of students run fictional countries in a world facing terrorism, resource shortages, and climate change. In addition to negotiating with other states, students face two sets of domestic policy challenges: the various interest groups in the country who clamor for particular projects and actions, and the dynamic of working with teammates responsible for different aspects of policymaking. There is an individual cost to each student. The National Geographic Society rents Giant Traveling Maps to schools at the rate of $600 per two weeks (price as of June 2016). I used the giant map of Asia during the simulation and found it useful for helping students visualize geography and territories. The kit comes with other materials and instructions for geography games to play using the map as well. Visit for more information on using this map in simulations.

General Resources to Build Student Portfolios:

Foreign Policy Magazine, subscription, but most college libraries subscribe) Foreign Affairs, subscription, but most college libraries subscribe) Global Asia Forum, (requires subscription) Council on Foreign Relations, (open access) CIA World Factbook, (open access to numerous country profiles) Nation Master, (open access, statistical data) The World Bank, (open access, self-reported country information) The Diplomat, (open-access information on the Asia Pacific)

Readings and Resources on Japan: Auslin, Michael. “Japan’s New Realism: Abe Gets Tough.” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016. Lind, Jennifer. “The Perils of Apology: What Japan Shouldn’t Learn from Germany.” Foreign Affairs,May/June 2013. Lipscy, Philip. “Who is East Asia’s Voldemort?” Al Jazeera America, March 26, 2014. Nye, Joseph. “Japan’s Robust Self-Defense Is Good for Asia.” Foreign Policy,August 2014. Japan Focus: The Asia-Pacific Journal, The Japan Times, (Japanese news outlet published in English)

Readings and Resources on China: “China’s Maritime Disputes.” Council on Foreign Relations InfoGuidePresentation. “It Is Time for American to Consider Accommodation with China.” Foreign PolicyChina File, June 2015. “Is the China Model Better than Democracy?” Foreign PolicyChina File, October 2015. MacMillan, Margaret. Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World. New York, Random House: 2008. McCoy, Robert. “Deconstructing the Senkaku-Diaoyu Dispute.” Global Asia Forum, January 2016. The China Daily, (open access news in English)

Readings and Resources on Taiwan: Cronen, Patrick M., and Phoebe Benich. “Taiwan’s Great Recalibration.” Foreign Policy,January 2016.
Michal, Roberge, and Youkyung Lee. “China-Taiwan Relations: CFR Backgrounders.” Council on Foreign Relations, “The Diaoyutai Islands—Sovereign Territory of the People’s Republic of China.”Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs,

Readings and resources on North and South Korea: Blumenthal, David. “Five Issues That Will Decide the Future of the US-South Korean Relationship.” Foreign Policy, October 2015. Chunshan, Mu. “Why China–North Korean Relations Can’t be Broken.” The Diplomat, March 10, 2016. Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. New York, Spigel and Grau: 2006. Hill, Fiona, and Bobo Lo. “Putin’s Pivot.” Foreign Affairs, July 31, 2013. “South Korea–Japan Relations.” The Diplomat,

NOTES 1. L. C. Lederman, “Debriefing: A Critical Reexamination of the Postexperience Analytical Process with Implications for its Effective Use,” Simulation & Gaming15, no. 4 (1984): 415–431.

2. See C. F. Petranek, et al., “Three Levels of Learning in Simulations: Participating, Debriefing, and Journal Writing,” Simulation & Gaming 23, no. 2 (1992): 174-185; C. F. Petranek, “A Maturation in Experiential Learning: Principles of Simulations and Gaming,” Simulation & Gaming 25, no. 4 (1994): 513–523; C. F. Petranek, “Written Debriefing: The Next Vital Step in Learning with Simulations.” Simulation & Gaming 31, no. 1 (2000): 108–118.

3. Special thanks to Berea College student AnaMarie Lukaitis, who helped with this article.

LAUREN McKEE is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. Her research and teaching interests lie in the areas of energy security and political economy, particularly in East Asia. She holds a PhD in International Studies from Old Dominion University.

The AAS Secretariat will be closed on Monday, May 27 in observance of Memorial Day