Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump. Many issues divide their countries. Image: YouTube

A slew of geopolitical issues sit at the basis of US-Chinese tensions. From the status of Taiwan to territorial claims in the South China Sea, to allegations of government-sanctioned intellectual property theft, relations between Washington and Beijing have been strained for years and may be entering their most tense phase yet.  

A years-long campaign on Chinese technology firms by the Trump administration reached a new peak this month with the imposition of another round of sanctions on Chinese companies – retribution for what the White House deems corporate espionage.

The targets include China’s premier telecommunications company Huawei along with several other corporations accused of supporting the government’s crackdown on Uighur Muslim populations in the western province of Xinjiang.  

The outbreak of Covid-19 and the ensuing global pandemic has only added fuel to the fire. The Chinese origins of the virus have triggered the ire of US officials, with President Trump going so far as to blame China for “mass worldwide killing.” 

The recent escalation by Washington triggered a scathing condemnation by China’s state-owned newspaper the Global Times in which it issued a thinly veiled threat. The publication said the latest US sanctions would only be “detrimental to itself”, leading observers to suspect retaliation from Beijing. 

Most recently, the Trump administration announced that it will block Chinese passenger planes from traveling to the US from June 16 after Beijing refused to allow US planes into the country. When the two global superpowers are engaged in such tit-for-tat political games, the consequences may be severe and far-reaching. 

As the antagonism heats up, many are beginning to speculate on what the near-term will bring or, more bluntly put, what will the worst-case scenario look like.

As any political analyst will readily admit, predicting the future of complex diplomatic relations is a muddied business at best. Traditional approaches to forecasting political strategies are essentially glorified guessing games.

What has made this process even more tainted, is the echo chamber in which they take place. From think tanks to government agencies, positive feedback loops and online algorithms trap organizations into making arbitrary decisions, believing them to be accurate.

These patterns tend to curtail any hope for honest and effective assessments and this leaves little to no room for critical thought or progress. Private political analysts that make up the pundit class tend to benefit from a bit more independence. However, these individuals also tend to orient themselves with a particular agenda. They can hardly be relied upon as a source of clarity.      

Innovation in the field of forecasting today is not about thinking up new answers but developing entirely new ways of approaching problems and maximizing the information sources. 

Simulations have long been used to produce a picture of how important processes may play out. Recently an increasing number of organizations, from private firms to international agencies, have been applying simulation models to the US-China clash to assess political and economic risk.

Wikistrat, a 10-year-old consultancy that focuses on crowdsourcing data to support forecasting with interdisciplinary perspectives, began a simulation this week to assess such risks. The firm is running a new “Economic Wargame” to simulate a future high tech embargo placed on China by the United States. The online interactive simulation is hosting 40 of the world’s leading experts on the US-China relations from leading global think tanks and 15 countries.

As part of the company’s approach to research and analysis, the simulation will be open to participants internationally where experts can join one of three 24-hour wargaming rounds. Chinese and American teams will be presented with different scenarios and asked to provide a policy response for their respective actor.

Each response will include a brief of the policy, its goals, rationale, as well as potentials for unintended consequences. 

Considering Covid-19 distancing measures, large-scale online simulations are a necessary replacement for the mass face-to-face gatherings that once typified wargaming. 

“US-China relations are at their lower points since restoration 40 years ago. Simulations are a great tool to better understand what’s next for the relations, the actors’ interests and policies, and to best prepare for a potential worst-case or extreme scenarios” says Wikistrat CEO Oren Kesler. 

Last year, the prestigious Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies conducted a simulation to examine what escalation in the Beijing-Washington trade war would look like. The simulation used game theoretical concepts to help explain decision-making processes. CSIS’s models were used to run two separate one-day simulations in which several groups of American experts on the US-China relationship and trade policy took part. 

Even more recently, the World Trade Organization developed its own models to simulate the effects of China or the United States using various trade war tactics against each other including tariffs and embargoes. 

While predicting the course of major geopolitical events will always be a perilous task, crowdsourcing provides a unique medium to take on complex problems where the stakes are high and can have international repercussions.

By broadening the knowledge and input base, simulations can collect extremely diverse understandings, free from agenda-driven bias. With the help of cutting-edge tech platforms, crowdsourcing can bring bright minds together from around the globe and across the political and expertise spectrums to come up with accurate forecasts, and help avert catastrophe. 

As simulations become ever-more valuable in predicting our future, war-games conducted by CSIS, WTO, and Wikistrat will provide important insight into how the current schism between China and the US will play out.

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Lin Nguyen

Lin Nguyen is an analyst in South Asian regional security, focusing on economic and political developments. Nguyen works on projects advising South Asian government ministries and also private enterprises seeking to do business in the region. She leverages her experience to write publicly about pressing economic and political issues that concern Asia at large.