It was a war game, but one with a serious purpose and high-profile players: members of the House select committee on China. The conflict unfolded on Risk board game-style tabletop maps and markers under a giant gold chandelier in the House Ways and Means Committee room.
The exercise explored American diplomatic, economic and military options if the United States and China were to reach the brink of war over Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own. The exercise played out one night last week and was observed by The Associated Press. It was part of the committee's in-depth review of U.S. policies toward China as lawmakers, especially in the Republican-led House, focus on tensions with President Xi Jinping's government.
In the war game, Beijing’s missiles and rockets cascade down on Taiwan and on U.S. forces as far away as Japan and Guam. Initial casualties include hundreds, possibly thousands, of U.S. troops. Taiwan's and China's losses are even higher.
Discouragingly for Washington, alarmed and alienated allies in the war game leave Americans to fight almost entirely alone in support of Taiwan.
And forget about a U.S. hotline call to Xi or one of his top generals to calm things down — not happening, at least not under this role-playing scenario.
The war game wasn't about planning a war, lawmakers said. It was about figuring out how to strengthen U.S. deterrence, to keep a war involving the U.S., China and Taiwan from ever starting.
Ideally, the members of Congress would walk out of the war game with two convictions, the committee chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., told colleagues at the outset: “One is a sense of urgency.”
The second: “A sense ... that there are meaningful things we can do in this Congress through legislative action to improve the prospect of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait," Gallagher said.
In reality, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the committee's top Democrat, told lawmakers, “we cannot have a situation where we are faced with what we are going to be facing tonight."
The “only way to do that is to deter aggression and to prevent a conflict from arising,” said Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill.
The U.S. doesn’t formally recognize the Taiwan government but is Taipei's most vital provider of weapons and other security assistance. Xi has directed his military to be ready to reclaim Taiwan in 2027, by force if necessary.
Asked about lawmakers' war game, Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy, said China wants peaceful reunification with Taiwan but reserves “the option of taking all necessary measures.”
“The U.S. side’s so-called ‘war game’ is meant to support and embolden ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists and further fuel tensions in the Taiwan Strait, which we firmly oppose,” Liu said.
In the war game, lawmakers played the blue team, in the role of National Security Council advisers. Their directive from their (imaginary) president: Deter a Chinese takeover of Taiwan if possible, defeat it if not.
Experts for the Center for a New American Security think tank, whose research includes war-gaming possible conflicts using realistic scenarios and unclassified information, played the red team.
In the exercise, it all kicks off with opposition lawmakers in Taiwan talking about independence.
With the think tank's defense program director Stacie Pettyjohn narrating, angry Chinese officials respond by heaping unacceptable demands on Taiwan. Meanwhile, China's military moves invasion-capable forces into position. Steps such as bringing in blood supplies for treating troops suggest this is no ordinary military exercise.
Ultimately, China imposes a de facto blockade on Taiwan, intolerable for an island that produces more than 60 percent of the world's semiconductors, as well as other high-tech gear.
While the U.S. military readies for a possible fight, U.S. presidential advisers — House committee members who are surrounding and studying the wooden tables with the map and troop markers spread out — assemble.
They lob questions at a retired general, Mike Holmes, playing the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, before deciding courses of action.
What are the economic consequences if the U.S. goes maximalist on financial punishments, one lawmaker asks.
“Catastrophic” is the response, for both the United States and China. China will hit back at the U.S. economy as well.
“Who's going to tell the president that he has to say to the American people, ‘Say goodbye to your iPhones?”’ Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, asks.
Do American leaders have any way to communicate with their Chinese counterparts, lawmakers ask. No, China's leaders have a history of shunning U.S. hotline calls, and that's a problem, the exercise leaders tell them.
In the war game, U.S. officials are left trying to pass messages to their Chinese counterparts through China-based American business leaders, whose Dell, Apple, HP and other product operations China all subsequently seizes as one of its first moves in the attack.
Are potential military targets in China “near major metropolitan areas that are going to include millions and millions of people?” asks Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J.
Has Taiwan done all it can to try to calm the situation? All it can and will, lawmakers are told.
“It's not clear to me we've exhausted all our diplomatic options,” Gallagher notes.
Then, on paper, U.S. and Chinese satellites, space weapons, drones, submarines, ground forces, warships, fighter squadrons, cyber warriors, communications experts, bankers, Treasury officials and diplomats all go to war.
At the end, before the lessons-learned part, the war-game operators reveal the toll of the first wave of fighting. Lawmakers study the tabletop map, wincing as they hear of particularly hard setbacks among U.S. successes.
U.S. stockpiles of very long-range missiles? Gone.
Global financial markets? Shaking.
U.S. allies? As it turns out, China's diplomats did their advance work to keep American allies on the sidelines. And anyway, it seems the all-out U.S. economic measures against China's economy have put allies off. They're sitting this one out.
In the “hot-wash” debrief at the end, lawmakers point to a few key military weaknesses that the war game highlighted.
“Running out of long-missiles is bad,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D.
But the most glaring shortfalls appeared in diplomacy and in nonmilitary planning.
Becca Wasser, a think tank senior fellow who role-played a convincingly menacing Chinese official, pointed to lawmakers' recurring frustration in the war game at the lack of direct, immediate leader-to-leader crisis communication. It's something Beijing and Washington in the real world have never managed to consistently make happen.
“In peacetime, we should have those lines of communication,” Wasser said.
The exercise also underscored the risks of neglecting to put together a package of well-thought out economic penalties, and of failing to build consensus among allies, lawmakers said.
“As we get closer to 2027, they're going to be trying to isolate us,” Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said of Xi's government.
Holmes, in the role of Joint Chiefs chairman, reassured lawmakers, after the first three days of fighting.
"We survived,” he said.