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What Will Happen When a Chinese Aircraft Carrier Group Enters the Persian Gulf?

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

Wikistrat Experts who role-played the US, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a recent Wikistrat wargame share their insights.

On October 28th, Wikistrat ran its "When a Chinese Carrier Group Enters the Persian Gulf" simulation. The simulation ran for a period of three days, during which three scenarios were presented and played out. Nearly 100 participants were divided into four teams: Iran, KSA/UAE, China, and the US. Each team was asked to explore various policies and to decide as a group on the best response to the changing situation.

We asked four of the simulation's participants to tell us about their experience and insights from the simulation. Here are their thoughts.


Team Iran:

Oz Hassan, Associate Professor in National Security, University of Warwick (UK)

Team China:

Peter Moody, Professor Emeritus, Political Science, University of Notre Dame, specializing in Chinese Politics

Team US:

Joel J. Sokolsky, Professor of Political Science, Royal Military College of Canada


Rebecca Molloy, PhD., independent research analyst, Senior Analyst at Wikistrat

How did your team respond to the scenario of a Chinese carrier group entering the Persian Gulf? Was there a specific strategy or approach you decided to take?

Prof. Moody (Team China): Generally speaking, there seemed to be a consensus that the goal was to make the point that China now had the capacity to operate on a global basis and that China would not submit to American dictation or threats. At the same time, there was a concern with avoiding, if at all possible, consonant with national dignity, any violent confrontation with the United States. As far as we could tell, we were successful in this, and in avoiding any unilateral action that would exacerbate the situation.

Dr. Hassan (Team Iran): My approach was to treat this as a forecasting exercise. To look at the fundamentals at play in the scenario. Then to add layers of complexity to the problems we faced in each round. For Iran, this meant adopting their position, looking at the problem from their perspective, and role-playing the game in each round. Yet, in each round, we needed to consider the global and regional dynamics at play and cross-reference our policy options with other opportunity costs. For example, we asked how would this play out domestically in Iran? How could we balance without bandwagoning with China? These were complicated issues and working with gray zones and having a sense of degree and balance within our actions became very important.

Prof. Sokolsky (Team US): A range of responses that included a show of force, diplomatic initiatives to garner allied support, and secret actions to put pressure on both China and Iran. My own approach was not to over-react, bearing in mind that there were no legal grounds to prevent the entry of the PLA(N) carrier nor to Beijing developing port facilities in Iran and that China was engaging in similar port development activities with its US allies. I also noted that China's main interests are commercial and that it does not wish to become entangled in Persian Gulf conflicts.

Rebecca Molloy (Team KSA/UAE): The main goal was to diffuse potential tension that resulted from Chinese presence in the Gulf, trying to steer China away from a relationship with Iran that was too close for comfort. Protecting the working relationship with the US was of utmost importance.

What are the key insights that you learned from the simulation?

Prof. Moody (Team China): In my opinion, the way the team acted was consistent with the style of Chinese foreign policy. We might, indeed, apart from the initial action in sending in a carrier group, have behaved more in accord with the pre-Xi caution than with the apparent recklessness the current Chinese leadership seems inclined to.

Dr. Hassan (Team Iran): There were many insights gathered throughout each round. The big one was just how important the rise of China is for Iran. It provides a range of defensive policy options that simply would not have been available a decade ago. So, relative power between states matters and the rise and fall of great powers matters the most.

Conversely, it also became apparent just how limited the range of offensive policy options were. We could be disruptive, we could agitate, we could balance, but we simply could not move to a decisive offensive position that would let us ‘win the game’. The scenario was not zero-sum nor finite, and that goes to show the level of complexity the game was being played at.

Prof. Sokolsky (Team US): Based on the range of options put forward it appears to be that there is a great deal of disagreement among experts as to how to deal with China's increased global activities and the extent to which this increase actually threatens vital American economic and security interests. Just because China and its Navy will be more active on the global stage does not necessarily mean that the United States will be any less influential or that its allies and other states will bandwagon around Beijing.

Rebecca Molloy (Team KSA/UAE): The US's progressively more isolationist (a la Trump)/ hand-off (a la Obama) approach has put it at a noticeable disadvantage in the MENA and will have grave ramifications for the future of the US role on the international stage. The USG has left a gaping hole where US leadership used to be and the vacuum is steadily being filled by China.

In your own opinion, what are the added insights the simulation provides its participants?

Rebecca Molloy (Team KSA/UAE): There were some knowledgeable folks on the team, disagreements were always handled tastefully and respectfully. It was a pleasure learning from others' expertise. It emphasizes the importance of cooperation, consideration of other vantage points is crucial to the success of team strategy.

Prof. Sokolsky (Team US): As always, I find these simulations challenging and useful in clarifying my own thinking and understanding how scholars and experts from around the world look at the same problem. The activities are useful in terms of my own research and also in providing different perspectives that can be used in my teaching, particularly at the graduate level.

Prof. Moody (Team China): It was somewhat like playing Kriegspiel chess with, at most, a minimal input from the umpire. That said, participation was stimulating, thought-provoking, and fun.

Dr. Hassan (Team Iran): The added-value of this exercise is that it brings together a wide range of different experiences and perspectives from all around the world. Because it is online, it cuts out the organization's time and costs of bringing that level of expertise together.

Consequently, you are getting a very high level of experience and creative potential focused into one space; and that’s when the 'social physics’ of the scenario balance out to get detailed and specific insights. So, someone might say “we should do x!”, but then others will push for concrete and specific information and evidence to follow up “how would we do x? What would we use? Why would we use that? Etc”. Having that extra push forces you to develop your thinking.

If you wish to learn more about the wargame, click here

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