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On June 16, 2020, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (Sasakawa USA) welcomed four distinguished panelists to discuss the findings and recommendations of Sasakawa USA’s unclassified Tabletop Exercise (TTX) Pacific Trident III. The four panelists were Admiral Dennis Blair, USN (Ret.), Chairman and Distinguished Senior Fellow (Non-Resident) at Sasakawa USA and former Director of National Intelligence; Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt (Ret.), Senior Fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA); Ms. Kelly Magsamen, Vice President for National Security and International Policy at Center for American Progress; and Mr. Nobukatsu Kanehara, Professor in the Faculty of Law, Department of Political Science at Doshisha University and former Japanese government official. This talk was presented through Sasakawa USA’s Policy Briefing Series and held virtually via Zoom. Attendees included distinguished guests from the TTX Pacific Trident III, Lockheed Martin Center for Innovation, the Japan-U.S. Military Program (JUMP), the Embassy of Japan in the United States, the Washington, D.C. policy community, as well as, our sister organization, Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. Sasakawa USA’s Director of JUMP and Research Fellow, Chris Rodeman gave opening remarks. The following discussion with the four panelists and the Q&A was moderated by Admiral Blair.
This discussion focused on the overview of the exercise itself, the main findings, perspectives from both the Japan and U.S. teams, as well as insights from other TTX participants. The webinar also included a moderated Q&A in which attendees were able to ask questions to both the panelists and other TTX participants in the audience.
Overview of the TTX Scenario and Game – Presented by Admiral Dennis Blair
Admiral Blair began the discussion by presenting an overview of the TTX scenario and game. This tabletop exercise was the fourth in a series of exercises that Sasakawa USA has organized over the past several years, and it is the third in the Pacific Trident series. The exercises were designed to develop insights into future challenges to the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Korean alliances in the Indo-Pacific. The previous tabletop exercises focused on a single crisis scenario, but Pacific Trident III was designed to test the United States and its allies against a challenge from China on multiple fronts. Although the exercise occurred in February 2020, the simulation for Pacific Trident III took place from August to October of 2020 and was played in four moves.
For more information on scenario and game, please refer to the TTX Pacific Trident III’s final report, Testing U.S. Capacity to Handle Simultaneous Provocations in East Asia.
Main Report Findings – Presented by Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt
Following the overview of the exercise, Rear Admiral McDevitt provided his key findings from the game report. First, he agreed with Admiral Blair’s earlier point that China failed to sew divisions in the U.S. alliance structure, and conversely, their assertive activity inadvertently strengthened the alliance network.
Second, TTX play demonstrated that turning the Alliance Coordination Mechanism into a trilateral mechanism to include South Korea was essential to the effective coordinated response to the unfolding situation. During the TTX a secure video link was simulated, and it was understood that making provisions for a trilateral ACM would be more difficult in the real world. However, this was the fourth consecutive TTX that highlighted the importance of having some sort of a trilateral Washington-Tokyo-Seoul coordination mechanism available.
Third, he noted that a response by the United States, Japan, Seoul, and Taiwan to Chinese aggression against Taiwan-held islands required communication and consultation with Taiwan’s political and military authorities. In the TTX both Seoul and Tokyo put aside the inhibitions of respective “one China policies” and coordinated directly with Taipei. The finding was that in a real-world crisis this imperative would be likely to arise and that Tokyo and Seoul should consider establishing networks of contact with Taipei has a hedge. This is obviously a sensitive issue for all concerned, but the exigencies created by an actual act of aggression would require some sort of coordination with the Taiwanese authorities.
Fourth, McDevitt indicated that the TTX demonstrated once again that the current U.S. position of taking no position on disputed South China Sea sovereignty claims undercuts U.S. moral authority. For years, Beijing has ignored tough diplomatic statements and documents from Washington in response to numerous Chinese transgressions, and true to form they did so in the TTX. The finding was that perhaps it was time for the USG to move from neutrality on sovereignty claims toward recognition of certain claims. This is another very controversial suggestion but basing a policy approach on the legal principle of uti possidentis (everyone keeps what they hold) might be a better way forward in the Spratly Islands where the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan all have overlapping sovereignty claims. Separately, TTX play indicated China had every intention of militarizing Scarborough Shoal, and as a potential deterrent, he recommended that Washington recognize Philippine sovereignty over Scarborough.
Finally, the TTX revealed that Tokyo and Washington need to invest more effort into developing a broad understanding of one another’s strategic objectives in Southeast Asia. This understanding is necessary so that collectively they can work to best counter Chinese influence in the region.
Views from the U.S. Team – Presented by Ms. Kelly Magsamen
Next, Ms. Magsamen addressed the rationale behind the U.S. team’s strategy in the game, the challenges that presented themselves during the game, and takeaways from Pacific Trident III. She began by explaining the rationale for the U.S. team’s strategy, stating that, from early in the simulation, they decided to prioritize the events in the South China Sea over the issues that came up on the Korean Peninsula. This was exemplified by the U.S. team’s decision to focus on deescalating tensions on the peninsula by working with South Korea through diplomatic channels to walk back any potential conflict with North Korea. This strategy was intentional and designed to allow the United States to focus its efforts more concretely on the issues in the East China Sea and South China Sea. One of the goals of the U.S. team was to deter the China team from making any further moves against Taiwan. Thus, the United States landed some U.S. Marines on Thitu and the Second Thomas Shoal. It attempted to expand the scope of the Taiwan Relations Act, and it also made very overt statements about U.S. relations with Taiwan. All of these moves were taken in an attempt to alter the status quo and provide the U.S. team with more leverage to negotiate a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. One of the team’s primary goals was to secure a summit between Xi and Trump. In order to do this, the players needed one more move in the exercise to see if an outcome could be negotiated at the summit, but this did not occur.
Overall, the U.S. team really focused on ensuring strong alliance coordination, especially trilateral diplomatic and military action with Japan and South Korea to respond to the threats posed by China and North Korea. The United States managed to successfully negotiate an unprecedented combined naval transit between the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. This resulted in a significant shift in the strategy of the teams as the United States, its allies, and its partners developed better cohesion and integrated Taiwan more into the U.S. alliance structure. This also served as a signal to Beijing that its strategy of targeting perceived weaknesses in the U.S. alliance system was actually undermining China’s position in the long term.
Ms. Magsamen noted that the U.S. team was also working very hard to ensure that they had a very geographically distributed force posture in the region to give them more flexibility to respond to various situations. The U.S. team was very focused on the Chinese submarine force and much of the military cooperation with Japan and Taiwan revolved around concerns with the full deployment of the Chinese submarine force. She then acknowledged the challenges that such a widespread, distributed crisis scenario presents to the United States. There were questions of the sustainability of the U.S. presence over time. There were also questions about the political and strategic impact of moving the U.S. presence. She cautioned decision makers to prepare for having to manage these questions in a crisis.
Her first main takeaways was that, like Admiral Blair and Admiral McDevitt said, allies remain central to the U.S. ability to execute its objectives in the Indo-Pacific. Without allies, the United States would not be able to operate in the region and effect any real significant security outcomes. Her second takeaway was that China clearly links action in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia in ways that the United States does not, in regards to both a policy structure and force posture. Ms. Magsamen stated that the United States often treats Northeast and Southeast Asia as two different theaters with separate issue sets, but it is very clear now that China has a different outlook on some of this. Her next takeaway was that, throughout the simulation, it felt like the collective responses of the U.S. team were focused far too much on military options and underutilized diplomatic and economic policy options. She attributed this to a result of the players in the game coming from various defense establishments but stated that she firmly believes that this is an area where U.S. policy needs to do some innovating and move away from purely military responses to some of these scenarios. For example, Ms. Magsamen stated that occupying features in the South China Sea was definitely controversial on the U.S. side but that it also rapidly escalated the situation instead of de-escalation. She emphasized that high-level diplomacy between the United States and China will be essential to negotiating in a crisis like the exercise presented. Although the U.S. team was unable to have its desired summit in the simulation, in the real world the United States would need much more direct, high-level engagement with the Chinese. She also asserted that while China may have gained some additional features and changed the status quo in the South China Sea, she thought that from a strategic perspective, China really undermined itself with respect to more broad U.S. alliance coordination and recognition of Taiwan. Finally, Ms. Magsamen wanted to flag that various players used disinformation throughout the game (whether China or North Korea), and that the United States must prepare its allies to address challenges linked to disinformation. She concluded by warning that disinformation may soon evolve from a gray zone tactic to potentially something far worse and that the United States must do more to protect itself and its allies in this regard.
Views from the Japan Team – Presented by Mr. Nobukatsu Kanehara
The discussion then turned to cover the remarks of Mr. Kanehara, who played on the Japan team during the exercise. He began with applauding the coordination between the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan during the exercise. However, he bemoaned that while the coordination was important to the exercise, in his opinion, it turned out much better than it would be in reality. Mr. Kanehara addressed three key takeaways from his experience with the exercise.
First, he warned that the U.S. alliance structure in the Indo-Pacific, the hub and spoke model, is based on bilateral alliances and is not necessarily designed to work like NATO. While the main U.S. presence is primarily concentrated in Japan, these forces were also intended to help defend South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Mr. Kanehara stated that this was the original idea of the U.S.-Japan alliance in 1960. During the Cold War, this framework was effective as Japan was facing the Soviet Union and South Korea was facing North Korea. Despite its contentious history with the United States and the Soviet Union, China later became a partner in the late 1970s after the Vietnam War, so there was little threat in the south to Taiwan. Now, with the rise of China, Mr. Kanehara asserts that the Japan-U.S. alliance must shift its strategic focus to the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Taiwan. In this new situation, the U.S. alliance system, the hub and spokes system, could be seen as fragile since China ca bully U.S. partners and allies simultaneously in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Because of this, Mr. Kanehara stated that U.S. partners and allies in the region are still divided. He affirmed that this TTX showed that the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (with a possible future inclusion of Australia) should coordinate in a more robust way to meet the challenges of a rising China. Any contingency cannot be handled effectively without daily coordination, exercises, and readiness of the parties. He stated that China learns quickly and can exploit weaknesses of the alliance system if not careful.
Second, the United States should share its strategy for the South China Sea with its allies. Mr. Kanehara stated that Japan and South Korea have formal alliances with the United States that promote military cooperation, and these countries believe that the United States would use strategic nuclear weapons to deter any possible nuclear attacks from enemies. In other words, Northeast Asia is very clearly under a U.S. defense perimeter, but that same status remains unclear for parts of Southeast Asia, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. He said it was shocking to see that the United States gave up on Taiping Island so quickly and easily in the exercise. He said that the Japan team was prepared to face a contingency in the South China Sea, not necessarily on the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Kanehara said that he believed that United States Forces Korea and the South Korean military could easily maintain the status quo because they are stronger than North Korea. Due to this, the Japan team agreed to the tactical accommodation of North Korean demands because they trusted South Korea to handle its neighbor. From his perspective, Taiwan needed more help and its situation was helpless in the South China Sea. Mr. Kanehara stated that the United States cannot leave Taiwan alone in negotiations with China because China often dictates the negotiations without U.S. oversight. This kind of bullying happens with many small countries, not just Taiwan and the Chinese often use intimidation to sew doubt in the United States’ ability to assist allies. The United States should develop a strategy to counter this and coordinate their strategy more coherently with allies. He asserted that the present freedom of navigation operations could hurt U.S. credibility if the United States does not help defend claimed islands in the South China Sea.
Mr. Kanehara also spoke about the Senkaku Islands. He said that even after the exercise, Japan has not reacted to the audacious Chinese provocations that have taken place daily since April. He reasoned that this was because the situation around the Senkaku Islands has changed drastically. Before, Japan Coast Guard vessels would chase China Coast Guard ships in and out of the territorial seas surrounding the Senkaku Islands. But now, the PLA and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) have been at a standoff with each other and the situation has become very tense. He thinks that China will not escalate the conflict because if an armed conflict erupted, thousands could die instantly, unlike the recent standoff between India and China in the Himalayas.
Mr. Kanehara appreciated the comprehensive approach of the U.S. team and said that Japan could learn a lot from the U.S. team’s approach. He stated that the so-called D.I.M.E. strategy (Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economy) allowed the team to coordinate their strategy more efficiently in a short period of time and make good decisions. The United States also maneuvered military forces to send diplomatic messages and parlay with ‘enemy’ leaders. He said that the Japan NSC still lacks the ability to act in the same way and has many lessons to learn from the United States.
Mr. Kanehara then gave some closing comments starting with an assertion that China would never relinquish North Korea and that Chinese policymakers will work hard to keep North Korea in the orbit of China. Mao Zedong did not invade Taiwan, instead, China came to the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War. The Korean Peninsula is closer to Beijing and China cannot afford to lose that buffer. With this, Kanehara stated that Japan and the United States must always think of Chinese interests when approaching North Korea.
Mr. Kanehara cautioned that taking sides in territorial disputes and changing the status quo are two different things and should be approached differently. He asserted that changing the status quo by force is tantamount to an invasion, regardless of the kind of force used. The United States and its allies should be aware that these kind of gray zone provocations act against the peaceful settlement of disputes and that the alliance system must be ready to take action to prevent such subversive actions.
Additional Insights from TTX Participants
Individual commentary from each of the panelists was followed by a discussion with TTX participants apart from the four panelists. The first of these participants was Mr. Roy Kamphausen, President of the National Bureau of Asian Research, who played on the China team. Mr. Kamphausen made two points. First, from his team’s perspective, there were two immutable Chinese advantages: geographically, the exercise was a ‘home game’ for China and the U.S. team disadvantaged by its long lines of communication; and by virtue of not having labor-intensive allied relationships, China had much greater freedom of action. The combination of these two advantages meant that the China team could act earlier and more decisively than other teams in the exercise. Second, Mr. Kamphausen asserted that while China failed to break any U.S.-ally relationship, it did succeed in changing the status quo in the South China Sea. China’s salami-slicing tactics aimed to only erode and diminish U.S. credibility, not necessarily provoke an armed conflict.
The next speaker was Admiral Hsi-Min Lee, Republic of China Navy (Ret.), a player on the Taiwan team. Admiral Lee expressed his initial disappointment in the decisions of the U.S. team regarding acting on Chinese control over Taiping Island. However, he agreed that Taiwan should encourage Seoul and Tokyo to establish political and military networks with Taipei in order to facilitate coordination in the case of emergencies. Admiral Lee also noted that Taiwan has been attempting to persuade the South Korean and Japanese governments to form these networks for years, but these efforts have been unsuccessful. He believes that in order to establish these networks, the United States must take the lead so that Seoul and Tokyo may follow without fear of reprisal by China. Admiral Lee then turned to address future tabletop exercises. He recommended that an even more critical scenario should be addressed in the future, one in which there is an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait. He questioned how the Japan-U.S. alliance would respond to such a crisis. He stated that, in his opinion, this scenario is highly likely and a tabletop exercise simulating such a crisis would be incredibly beneficial.
Ambassador David Shear, DoS (Ret.), who played the role of Secretary of State on the U.S. team spoke next. Ambassador Shear noted four takeaways. On a note similar to Ms. Magsamen’s comments, he recognized the strategic inseparability of Southeast and Northeast Asia from the U.S. perspective. He also noted the asymmetry of security structures between the United States, China, and their respective allies. In his opinion, in a crisis, the United States would be able to identify a purpose to go to war in Northeast Asia, but he questioned whether the U.S. could do the same in Southeast Asia. The United States needs to more clearly define what situations in Southeast Asia would it consider armed conflict. Ambassador Shear then emphasized the importance of figuring out how to respond more effectively to gray zone tactics in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea because they undermine traditional deterrence. Lastly, he advocated for further communication between the United States and Japan, Australia, and Taiwan to identify these tactics and act accordingly in the South China Sea. Lastly, Ambassador Shear emphasized that such clarification over appropriate responses to gray zone activity remains critical for alliances in achieving an efficient allocation of military and diplomatic assets to bolster traditional deterrence in the South China Sea.
The final participant to speak was Dr. Satu Limaye, Vice President and Director of the East-West Center in Washington, who played the collective role of ASEAN as part of the White Cell during the exercise. Dr. Limaye expressed his surprise at how quickly Southeast Asia was incorporated into the wider situations of Chinese pressure presented by the exercise. He also mentioned that while the United States and its allies were constructively engaged in Northeast Asia, he found that the U.S. and its allies were slow to act in Southeast Asia. Over the last seventy years, the United States and its allies became well versed in contingencies in Northeast Asia; however, this was not the case in Southeast Asia. Dr. Limaye’s final point was that the Scarborough Shoal incident reiterated the importance of the U.S.-Philippine alliance and he recommended that the United States pursue deeper dialogue with its Southeast Asia allies in order to discuss what they would be willing to do in such crisis situations.
Moderated Q&A with Attendees
The last part of the webinar was a question and answer session moderated by Admiral Blair. The first question was by asked by Mr. Gregory Poling, Senior Fellow and Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He asked for the panelists and other TTX attendees to speak more on the decision to deploy U.S. forces to Thitu and the Second Thomas Shoal, as well as their thoughts on convincing Manilla to accept such a move and the escalation risk. Admiral Blair first stated that the decision to deploy troops was a point of strong negotiation between the U.S. team and the Control Team, with Dr. Limaye playing the role of the Philippine government. Ms. Magsamen responded that from the U.S. team’s perspective, the decision to deploy troops would be much more difficult for Manila to accept in real life but ultimately, the United States had the goal of building leverage and creating a status quo advantage that the Philippines would support. Dr. Limaye responded by stating that he agreed with Ms. Magsamen’s analysis. However, he also reiterated that Southeast Asia could slow down a U.S. response in this way due to hesitation to upset China or uncertainty in contingency planning.
Mr. Satoshi Ogawa from the Yomiuri Shimbun asked a hypothetical question about the deployment of the JMSDF’s Izumo, which is a destroyer and helicopter carrier. “If the Izumo were in the South China Sea, what kind of assistance would the U.S. team have asked of Japan, and what would have been the likely reaction for the Japan team?” Ms. Magsamen responded by saying that having a strong Japanese presence in the South China Sea would have been extremely valuable. This presence, in addition to serving as a deterrent, would bolster the U.S. Navy’s presence in the South China Sea and alleviate some of the stress on the U.S. force posture which was pretty widely distributed at that point in the simulation. Overall, she stated that the U.S. team would have welcomed as much support as the JMSDF would be willing to offer. From a Japanese perspective, Mr. Kanehara responded by clarifying the economic and social importance of the South China Sea to Japan. As for a defense perimeter, Japan pulled away from the South China Sea after World War II and has only been responsible for its territorial waters for many decades. It is true that the JMSDF is considered a ‘blue water navy’ in peacetime but planning for this hypothetical contingency is difficult and has not been done by Japan. He admitted that, of course, the JMSDF would participate in ad hoc cooperation, but that Japan still needs to improve readiness for defense cooperation in Southeast Asia.
Next, Mr. Russell Hsiao, Executive Director of the Global Taiwan Institute, asked why the U.S. team decided not to support Taiwan’s plan to retake Taiping Island. Admiral Blair first responded that the teams in the exercise acknowledged that their responses entered areas characterized by policy ambiguity, especially regarding the U.S. security guarantee to Taiwan. Ms. Magsamen clarified that the U.S. team was trying to introduce a realistic operation into the game, one in which they were trying to build leverage and open diplomatic exchange with Beijing. While she acknowledged the imperfections in the U.S. team’s response, she also affirmed that her team clearly acknowledged Taiwan’s sovereignty in the exercise and that the U.S. team wanted to own the initiative to build leverage for de-escalation. Admiral Lee also acknowledged that the Taiwan team wanted to regain Taiping Island but questioned the capability of Taiwanese forces to recapture it without U.S. support. However, he said that the Taiwan team was comfortable working on coalition to help change the status quo since China would not have wanted conflict with the United States and its allies. Admiral Lee was confident that the China team never considered retreat in Taiping.
Admiral Blair then clarified the aggressive nature of the China team in the exercise. The function of a tabletop exercise like Pacific Trident III was to test different strategies adversaries may follow in order to identify points of improvement in your own strategy. Therefore, the exercise itself was an opportunity for the players to adjust and learn how to address a China that was acting far more aggressive than it has to date. This shift in aggression level was only slowly realized by the U.S. team over time, and there was even some disbelief by the South Korea team regarding the opening attack on Kunsan Air Base by North Korea. The adjustment in behavior slowed down the U.S. and South Korean response during the exercise, but the players eventually adapted and forged their own strategies to deal with more aggressive adversaries in the exercise.
Admiral Jonathan Greenert, USN (Ret.) of the U.S. team then made a comment regarding the ambiguity present in current U.S. policy. Initially, the U.S. team’s response to Chinese aggression in Taiwan was to buy time because they did not have a policy in place to respond appropriately and President Trump said he did not want conflict with China over Taiwan. Later in the game, President Trump took a more aggressive approach and ordered the U.S. team to take any island in the South China Sea as a show of force in response to Chinese aggression. From the actions taken by the U.S. team in Pacific Trident III, Admiral Greenert concluded that the United States needs more clarification regarding its policies and contingencies related to the South China Sea and Taiwan. Ambassador Shear added that throughout the exercise, the U.S. team never really levied a threat against the China team. Mr. Kamphausen agreed and said that the U.S. team should have done so from the outset alongside high-level diplomacy with China. Such a threat could have easily made the China team back down from its aggressive approach to the South China Sea.
The final question was asked by Dr. Tsuneo Watanabe, Senior Fellow of the International Peace and Security Department at Sasakawa Peace Foundation. He wondered what are the cases in peacetime that would warrant increased communication between Taiwan and the United States as well as U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea. Admiral Blair responded by stating that the United States and Taiwan have been able to increase their communication throughout the years without changing the formal structure of the ‘One-China’ policy. This level of communication has increased steadily alongside the escalating pressure China has asserted on Taiwan. He also noted that the primary impediment to U.S.-Japan-South Korean trilateral coordination has been the ongoing political dispute between South Korea and Japan which affects the degree to which these countries can communicate with each other. Mr. Kanehara concluded that Japan must be ready to match China as it rises and that cooperation with South Korea will likely continue to be difficult due to political tensions.
Admiral Blair concluded by thanking the panelists, the TTX participants and staff, and the webinar attendees. Lastly, Chris Rodeman concluded the event by thanking Admiral Blair, the panelists, the Lockheed Martin Center for Innovation staff, and Chairman of the Board and President of Sasakawa USA, Dr. Satohiro Akimoto.
Sasakawa USA is grateful to Admiral Dennis Blair, USN (Ret.), Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt, USN (Ret.), Ms. Kelly Magsamen, and Mr. Nobukatsu Kanehara for their presentation and commentary on this webinar.
The summarized views of the speakers expressed herein are entirely the work of Sasakawa USA and do not represent the official positions of any of the speakers.
For more information about Sasakawa USA’s Policy Briefing Series, please visit the series’ webpage.