These days, Washington seems to be awash in war games, especially China-related ones. Yet, despite the dangers posed by a great power conflict, there are shockingly few peace games happening inside the Beltway outside the auspices of our home institution, the U.S. Institute of Peace.

USIP and the FP Group hold a peace game examining what the best possible peace for Syria might look like, Dec. 2013. USIP continues to run such simulations to seek ways to prevent war and/or contemplate how to strengthen diplomacy and engagement.
USIP and the FP Group hold a peace game examining what the best possible peace for Syria might look like, Dec. 2013. USIP continues to run such simulations to seek ways to prevent war and/or contemplate how to strengthen diplomacy and engagement.

What are peace games? They should not be confused with war games, which are simulations of military operations between two or more sides that seek to examine and improve warfighting concepts across different scenarios. In short, they focus on the conduct of war. Peace games, however, are simulations of primarily diplomatic engagement (but also using military and economic tools) that seek to explore and improve statecraft to advance peace and reduce the risks of conflict. Just as war games are valuable for militaries to explore how conflicts might play out under different scenarios and to test the efficacy of operational plans, peace games are valuable for studying how adversarial relations can be improved and to test the efficacy of diplomatic strategies.

Peace games are not propelled by flights of fantasy nor are they driven by wishful thinking. They are serious simulations grounded in real-world problems and focused on the difficult challenge of seeking alternatives to hostilities and wars as well as grappling with how to address seemingly intractable and heated disputes via peaceful means.

Together, the authors of this article possess decades of policy and analytic experience in the U.S. national security community. All of us view simulations as a valuable tool to explore major global security challenges and glean fresh insights into how to address them. We both specialize in the strategic landscape of East Asia and each of us have wrestled over the course of our careers with the daunting real-world security challenges posed by China and North Korea. Moreover, we are veterans of numerous war games involving these two states. In sum, we do not approach simulations as an academic endeavor or intellectual avocation.

Different Flavors of Peace Games

There are different gradations of peace games. Just like war games, they can vary in length, scope and complexity. The authors have conducted multi-day, multi-move peace games with numerous players in multiple rooms on different teams and involving complex scenarios. We have also designed and run half-day simulations with a dozen-plus participants in a single room as one group intensely grapples with multiple dimensions of a simple but perilous scenario.

There are also different types of peace games. One type run by USIP focuses on how weary warring parties within a single strife-torn country or community can come together to build peace. Yet, these authors have focused on a different category of peace game: those involving elevated tensions between two or more countries. These fall into two variants: Just as peace can be defined as the absence of violence (“negative peace”) or the presence of cooperation and constructive relations (“positive peace”), USIP peace games seek to prevent a war and/or contemplate how to strengthen diplomacy and engagement. Peace games we have convened involving China have tended to concentrate on the former while peace games involving North Korea have focused on the latter.

Left of Bang: China

China is currently not in a state of outright war with any other country, yet there continue to be multiple confrontations and ongoing tensions in the Indo-Pacific. Unsurprisingly, this has led to considerable speculation in multiple countries — including the United States — about the specter of imminent war with China. Relations between China and a good number of countries have worsened in recent years and there have been confrontations, skirmishes and/or clashes between the armed forces of China and those of other parties, including India, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, as well as the United States.

Currently, relations between China and the United States are especially fraught and most analysts assess the bilateral relationship to be at its lowest point in many decades. Indeed, in recent years confrontations and standoffs between the armed forces of the United States and China have occurred on an alarmingly routine basis. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, during a two-year period from late 2021 and late 2023, there have been 180 documented instances of dangerous “air intercepts” involving People’s Liberation Army and U.S. military aircraft in the Indo-Pacific — more than occurred over the previous 10 years. While the most likely location of a U.S-China conflict is in the Taiwan Strait, what is noteworthy is that these confrontations have also occurred in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

The outbreak of military conflict between China and another country is a frightening, but increasingly plausible, prospect. Moreover, once a conflict begins, the potential for escalation is significant in terms of intensity of conflict, size of combatant forces and elevation to nuclear war as well as expansion of geographic scope and number of countries involved. For example, a war between China and Japan or China and the Philippines would almost certainly draw in the United States — since Washington is a treaty ally of Tokyo and Manila — and conceivably become a brutal, intense and extended conflict waged across vast swathes of the Western Pacific and beyond.

The irony of this looming specter of war is that no country intentionally seeks war. And yet, this fact does not guarantee that war will be averted. Indeed, the most plausible scenario for military conflict between China and another country is that hostilities break out inadvertently, unintentionally escalating from accidental collision and loss of life into full-blown cataclysmic war.

It has never been more urgent for all countries to give far greater attention to what the Pentagon calls “phase zero.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscores that war remains a real possibility and the world ignores the prospect of conflict at its peril. Serious games allow us to examine notional but frighteningly plausible crisis scenarios that could lead to war and explore how military conflict might be averted. Two takeaways from multiple USIP-sponsored, China-focused simulations in recent years are worthy of note.

First, these games highlight the propensity of both China and the United States swiftly to assume malevolent intentions behind any proposal or action of the other. While these are only games, they are serious ones with carefully constructed scenarios designed with real-world features. Furthermore, the players are experienced practitioners or seasoned subject matter experts from the United States and other countries. If this degree of deep suspicion and distrust arises in games involving experienced and knowledgeable players, then the issue is almost certainly going to be more acute under real-world conditions involving less seasoned practitioners. Indeed, research suggests this type of misperception is quite common in international relations.

A second takeaway from USIP simulations is that while China tends to pay close attention to strategic messaging, the United States and most other countries do not. In multiple games, China took time to formulate and articulate a coherent public narrative whereas the United States focused on the details of a particular scenario and specifics of how best to respond. This is not necessarily to suggest that China’s narrative automatically resonates; rather, it is to suggest that the Chinese narrative exists without a public counter-narrative.

As the United States scrambles to formulate a multipronged response tailored to a specific scenario, Beijing’s overarching narrative stands alone. Private warnings and quiet assurances are important but without Washington publicly and consistently articulating a clear message of deterrence to China and one of reassurance to allies, rumors can flourish, and seeds of doubt can grow. While clear U.S. public messaging does not guarantee war can be averted, it does offer allies and adversaries alike clarity on where the United States stands and provides less room for misunderstanding and uncertainty. These peace game experiences are consistent with real-world practices: where strategic communication is concerned, China appears to be “running rings around” the United States.

Right of Conflict: North Korea

Although Korean War hostilities ended in June 1953 with an armistice agreement, no peace agreement was ever concluded. The two principal combatants — South and North Korea — remain in a state of suspended animation armed to the teeth, confronting each other along a 160 mile-long Demilitarized Zone that dissects the peninsula. Moreover, the unresolved conflict enmeshes two major off-peninsula powers — the United States and China. Any re-ignition of the Korean War will immediately involve the United States because Washington maintains a robust mutual defense treaty with Seoul and over 28,000 U.S. forces continue to be stationed in South Korea. China, meanwhile, is also committed to support North Korea under the terms of a 1961 treaty.

Under such tense real-world circumstances, exploring a pathway to peace on the peninsula is essential. Yet, the repressive nature of the Pyongyang regime, its unwillingness to abandon its sizeable arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and its siege mentality make it difficult for many in Seoul or Washington to conceive of a negotiated settlement. Similarly, North Korea’s concerns about “hostile” alliance policies, such as large-scale military exercises, U.S. strategic asset deployments, multilateral and unilateral sanctions, trade embargoes, human rights criticisms, and insinuations of regime change, have reinforced its commitment to keeping its nuclear deterrent and its wariness of U.S. outreach.

To help overcome both sides’ narrow focus on deterrence and risk aversion and explore diplomatic risk-taking that pushes progressively toward a negotiated settlement, USIP, in collaboration with the Quincy Institute and the Sejong Institute, conducted a virtual peace game exercise in October 2021 that simulated diplomatic negotiations aimed at making tangible progress toward improving relations on the peninsula. The simulation reframed the assumptions of traditional war games, which tend to focus on deterring conflict, managing instability, or winning a war, and instead employed new assumptions that emphasize the goals of improving mutual relations, achieving tangible security benefits, reducing tensions and reaching a final and comprehensive peace settlement. The exercise revealed some interesting findings. The U.S. and North Korean teams acted as the principal actors in the exercise, determining whether negotiations remained static or moved forward, while South Korea and China played a lesser role. But these teams perceived potential losses in negotiations more acutely than potential gains, which resulted in diplomatic inertia. Also, both teams appeared open to negotiations as long as the other side took the first conciliatory step, but presidential leadership was required to overcome inaction. In addition, the U.S.-China rivalry fueled a zero-sum mentality that hindered opportunities for progress and heightened misunderstandings between the U.S. and South Korean teams.

These observations suggest potential policy recommendations for the countries involved. Advancing peace and denuclearization will require significant presidential leadership and intervention from all parties to build support for a final agreement. In addition, all parties should start with smaller, more reversible measures, mitigate the risk of failure and highlight potential gains. The United States should consider employing unilateral confidence-building measures to jump-start negotiations as long as they do not undermine its own security interests. Lastly, to achieve progress, all parties should separate issues pertaining to the Korean Peninsula from U.S.-China competition.


Few competent militaries would finalize plans and strategies for war let alone attempt real-world execution without testing them first in tabletop exercises. It is only prudent for governments to take a similar tack when formulating policies and strategies for peace. If war games constitute an essential arrow in a warrior’s quiver, peace games should also be considered an essential instrument in a peacemakers’ toolkit.

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