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Strategic Gaming: South China Sea Conflict 2015

Invited by Alfred Gerstl and Josef Falko Loher, about 40 Students of various backgrounds, both Bachelor and Master students, left the ordinary class room for a very special course at the Department of East Asian Studies. Taking the South China Sea Conflict as a real world background scenario, the two members of the Chair of East Asian Economy and Society (EcoS) organised a two day strategic game which simulated a highly complex and dynamic conflict involving main actors to act, react and interact in bi- and multilateral settings. Students were able to gain valuable knowledge about the conflict in focus, its various actors, economic, political and military dimensions.

In addition, by taking over the roles of state and organisational actors as well as individually preparing the sessions with a written actor analysis beforehand, students became experts on the respective actors' interests, aims, reservations and partnerships. The regional focus aside, theories of political science and international relations thus could be put into practical testing. Lastly, beneficial soft skills, like strategic thinking, as well as diplomatic acting and negotiating in complex social settings could be developed, enhanced and playfully tested.

A preparatory meeting three weeks earlier explained the rules and setting of the game as well as introducing participating students to the South China Sea Conflict, before they returned home for their assigned actor analysis. The two days of actual gaming were then opened by Ronald Mitterhofer's presentation on Strategic Thinking and Acting in intercultural negotiations. During the two days, a daily group slot gave the groups time to prepare individual strategies, aims and targets for the following bi- and multilateral negotiations. Supported by external experts groups could consult on issues related to their role.

Participants quickly realised that many of the corresponding tactical measures and prepared concessions were not possible to uphold during these negotiation rounds. Simulating as closely a real world setting as possible given the time and space constraints, some of these negotiations took place during informal coffee breaks and even working lunches. The highlight on both days was the respective afternoon meeting session of the model Asian Regional Forum (ARF) where all state and institutional matters faced each other in an official diplomatic exchange.

Protocol and rituals of such multilateral events had to be upheld while at the same time elected representatives eagerly argued in defence or for the advancement of their actor's goals, targets and alliances. Alliances, a crucial tool to promote the own interests, drafted beforehand suddenly had to hold up on the testing ground that is multilateralism. The two meeting days were concluded by an in depth evaluation and feedback round. Especially the experience and feedback from day one was noticeably integrated into the proceedings of day two, where positions and standings were altered, former passive parties got more active and the game's dynamic picked up recognisably.

As students' identification with their roles intensified, positions were defended more fiercely in some cases, while joint resorts were sought after more willingly in others. In the model resolution, finally, the exact phrasing was discussed on a high level to the last comma until facilitators almost had to cancel due to time constraints. Nevertheless a joint statement was finalised, safeguarding all parties' interest and concluding the two strenuous, challenging and rewarding days of strategic gaming.

Apart from the apparent learnings in regards to international relations and the specific conflict at hand, expertise on the individual actors within the setting and valuable lessons in negotiation strategies and tactics, the strategic game on the South China Sea Conflict also offered a platform for personal contacts and networking as well as a lot of hands-on fun for the eclectic group of students. Despite great achievements in the final negotiations and the passing of a hard-fought model resolution, the most important outcome according to participants' feedback might well have been the realisation that true results can only be attained by consensus and inclusion of all parties involved.

Chair of Economy and Society in East Asia, April 2015
images: A.Gerstl
text: M.Mandl

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„Chair of East Asian Economy and Society
Department of East Asian Studies
University of Vienna
AAKH-Campus, Hof 2, Entrance 2.3
Spitalgasse 2
1090 Vienna
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