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Dispute in the East China Sea

Japan and China exchange fire over the East China Sea in airspace above the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, five uninhabited islets claimed by both governments.


Tensions are escalating rapidly in the East China Sea, where Japan and China have competing sovereignty claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Both nations have asserted overlapping Air Defense Identification Zones over the islands. Moreover, Beijing and Tokyo do not agree on their maritime boundary, and thus their navies operate in close proximity in the East China Sea. Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force surveillance planes and Chinese People’s Liberation Air Force fighter jets have repeatedly come in dangerously close contact off the coast of China. Both Tokyo and Beijing refuse to give ground, claiming their militaries are operating legitimately in accordance with international law

Lead Image
Japanese coast guard clash with a protester

The Situation

Japan has long maintained an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that encompasses the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, over which it has administrative control. China declared its own ADIZ in 2013, stating it had the right to take military action against any aircraft that entered the zone without prior notification. Japan, along with the United States and South Korea, has protested the Chinese ADIZ and refuses to conform to China’s demand for prior notification. Japanese civilian and military aircraft continue to operate in the skies above the East China Sea. The intensification of the island dispute has raised political sensitivities in both countries, making it difficult for leaders to ignore the increasing interaction between ships and aircraft in the area. China now sends its coast guard to patrol the islands alongside Japan’s coast guard. The changing balance of military and economic power in Asia, growing popular distrust between the two nations, and deep dependence on the sea lanes for access to energy resources and trade have heightened concerns that Japan and China may inadvertently end up in an armed clash. Miscalculation by their militaries or an unforeseen incident provoked by fishermen or sovereignty activists could trigger a crisis. Washington does not take a position on the disputed sovereignty claims, but the United States has a treaty commitment to defend Japanese territory, including territory under its administrative control, against attack or the threat of attack. Because the use of force between China and Japan would likely lead to U.S. involvement, Washington has a stake in deterring and dissuading aggression by either party. The U.S. government has decided to convene a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to consider any action it should take to ease tensions in the East China Sea and to evaluate its long-term policy in the region.





  • U.S. treaty responsibility to Japan
  • Relations between established and rising powers in Asia
  • Trade and investment relationships among China, Japan, and the United States
  • Balance of power in the Pacific
Guide Sections
An Introduction to the National Security Council
National Security Council meeting

“The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security...”

– Title I of the National Security Act of 1947

1.1 Overview

The United States plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining international order in an increasingly globalized world. The range of foreign policy issues that require its attention or involvement is vast: from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to tensions with North Korea and Iran; from long-standing alliances with European and Asian powers to complex, evolving relationships with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa; from the stability of global finance to the promotion of economic opportunity in low-income countries; and from climate to health to nuclear proliferation to terrorism. There is little around the world in which the United States does not have a vested interest. Further, issues such as immigration, trade, and cybersecurity underscore the fading distinction between domestic and international matters.

U.S. leaders use a range of tools to pursue a foreign policy that they believe will safeguard national security and achieve U.S. goals:

  • diplomatic, such as bilateral or multilateral consultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions at global and regional bodies such as the United Nations, and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture
  • economic, such as trade and investment agreements, tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S.-manufactured products, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology
  • military, such as missile strikes, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces
  • unconventional actions, sometimes secret, undertaken by the U.S. government and its proxies, such as training and assisting foreign intelligence services, supporting armed nonstate actors, private security contracting, and cyberwarfare

Effective policymaking requires a deft combination of these tools. To accomplish this, policymakers need to clearly define U.S. interests and gauge the interests, resources, and motivations of foreign governments and nonstate actors. The U.S. intelligence community helps policymakers in their work by collecting and analyzing a vast range of information, including satellite images, communications records, documents, data, and personal observations.

Foreign policy successes and failures are often associated with presidential decisions. Less explored is the decision-making system that helps the president make those critical choices and coordinate their implementation. This guide will help you understand the system through which the United States creates and implements its foreign policy.

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National Security Council meeting
CIA Director George Bush discusses the evacuation of Americans from Beirut

“....I envisioned a special role for the national security advisor, who is the manager of the National Security Council. I needed an honest broker who would objectively present to the president the views of the various cabinet officers across the spectrum.”

— George H.W. Bush, “A World Transformed,” p. 18

1.2 The Interagency Process

Whether it aims to respond to an immediate crisis or to advance a long-term objective, a successful foreign policy–making process starts with a clear articulation of interests and goals. Policymakers and their advisors then formulate policy options to meet those goals and consider each option’s strengths and weaknesses. This process is challenging in the best of times. Information may be unreliable or incomplete, an adversary’s intentions may be unclear, and a decision’s consequences may be unknowable. Leaders often have to choose from a list on which every option is imperfect. Adding to this uncertainty is the complexity of the U.S. government’s foreign policy machinery: numerous agencies—each with its own interests and biases—seek to influence how policy is decided and carried out. In these circumstances, it takes considerable effort to run a process capable of producing sound policy decisions.

The National Security Council (NSC) plays a critical role in this effort. Its mission is to help the president effectively use a variety of instruments—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—to forge policies that advance U.S. national security goals.

The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which defined it as an interagency body intended to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Following World War II, in an age of expanded American interests and responsibilities, the NSC was expected to provide a place where the heads of federal departments and agencies could cooperate to develop and recommend to the president policies that would advance U.S. aims. The NSC and its staff were also meant to manage the policymaking process so that the president would receive a full range of advice and opinion from the departments and agencies involved in national security.

The NSC has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the preferences of successive presidents and the challenges they faced. Variables such as NSC meeting attendees, the frequency of meetings, the amount and format of information passed to the president, the importance of consensus, and the relative dominance of the NSC over other government institutions have changed over the decades.

During this time, the NSC has evolved to comprise various interagency committees and a large staff to prepare analysis and coordinate policymaking and implementation. The NSC is at the center of the interagency process, one through which relevant government agencies address foreign policy issues and help the president make and execute policy choices.

I. National Security Advisor

The national security advisor (formally assistant to the president for national security affairs), a senior advisor to the president, is at the heart of the NSC structure. Ideally, the national security advisor’s role is twofold: to offer advice to the president and to coordinate and manage policymaking. Because they have direct access to the president and do not represent a cabinet department such as the State Department or Defense Department, national security advisors are in a unique position to drive foreign policy decisions, manage the actors involved, and mitigate conflict throughout the decision-making process.

II. National Security Council Staff

The NSC staff consists of individuals from a collection of agencies that support the president, the vice president, and the administration. NSC staff members are generally organized into directorates that focus on regions or issues. The size and organization of the staff vary with each administration.

The NSC staff provides expertise for the variety of national security policy matters considered by the committees and the president. It manages numerous responsibilities, including preparing speeches, memos, and discussion papers and handling inquiries from Congress on foreign policy issues. Staff members analyze both immediate and long-term issues and help prioritize these issues on the interagency agenda.

III. Committee Structure

Committees are at the core of policy deliberation and policymaking in the NSC. They fall into four categories:

  • The highest-level is the National Security Council itself. Formal NSC meetings are chaired by the president and include individuals named by the National Security Act of 1947 as well as other senior aides the president invites.
  • The principals committee (PC) comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state and defense. The national security advisor traditionally chairs the principals committee.
  • The deputies committee (DC) includes the deputy leaders of the government departments represented on the principals committee and is chaired by the deputy national security advisor.
  • Policy coordination committees (PCCs) cover a range of regional areas and issues. Each committee includes officials who specialize in the relevant area or issue at one of the departments or agencies in the interagency system. PCCs are generally chaired by senior directors on the NSC staff. Much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement foreign policy across the U.S. government happens at the PCC level.

This committee structure tackles both immediate crises such as an outbreak of conflict and enduring issues such as climate change. In the normal course of events, PCCs conduct analysis on an issue, gather views on it and its importance from various departments, formulate and evaluate policy options, and determine what resources and steps would be required to carry out those options. The deputies committee, meanwhile, manages the interagency process up and down. It decides what PCCs to establish and gives them specific assignments. It also considers information submitted by the PCCs, ensuring that it is relevant, complete, and clear, before relaying it to the principals committee or the full NSC.

The principals committee is the highest-level setting, aside from the NSC itself, for debating national security issues. It consists of the heads of the NSC’s component agencies—essentially all the members of the NSC except the president and vice president. Formal NSC meetings, which the president chairs, occur whenever the president sees fit. They consider issues that require the president’s personal attention and a direct presidential decision.

The goal of this committee structure is to foster consensus on policy options or highlight where and why consensus cannot be reached. If officials at one level agree on an issue, it may not need to go to senior officials for a decision. This practice reserves the president’s time, and that of the principals, for the most complicated and sensitive debates.

When a crisis erupts, however, issues may not follow the usual path up from the PCCs. In these cases, NSC staff members and officials in government departments and agencies generally draft papers drawing on their expertise, available intelligence, and any existing contingency plans. Policy options are then debated and decided at the appropriate level, depending on the nature and severity of the crisis. The policymaking process may also deviate from this model based on the preferences of each president.

For the purposes of Model Diplomacy’s NSC simulation, you will role-play the NSC meeting with the assumption that the committees described have already done their jobs and passed critical information to the highest-level decision-makers.

Presidential Decisions

When the president makes a policy decision, it may take the form of a verbal instruction recorded in a NSC staff document and shared with relevant departments and agencies. The president may also issue formal decisions in documents that lay out the administration’s policy and explain its rationale and goals. These documents have gone by different names under different presidents. President Donald J. Trump issues national security presidential memoranda, which replace the presidential policy directives and presidential study directives that President Barack Obama issued.

The president may also issue an executive order. In the past, presidents have issued executive orders for such purposes as facilitating sanctions against foreign individuals and establishing new offices in government departments to achieve foreign policy aims. For federal agencies, both national security directives and executive orders carry the full force and effect of law, though the president’s authority to issue these kinds of documents is sometimes questioned.

National Security Council meeting
President Bush leads a meeting of the National Security Council.

“These complex times have made clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”

— Obama 2015 National Security Strategy

1.3 Departments and Agencies

Although many executive branch departments and agencies are involved in foreign policy and, depending on the issue, play a role in the NSC process, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community form the core of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice often play crucial roles as well.

Department of State

The Department of State conducts the United States’ relations with other countries and international organizations. It maintains U.S. diplomatic presence abroad, issues visas for foreigners to enter the country, aids U.S. citizens overseas, and manages cultural exchanges and other programs to promote American interests. As head of the department, the secretary of state is the president’s principal foreign affairs advisor and has a keen understanding of the United States’ international relations, the relationships between foreign countries, and the behavior and interests of their governments.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense carries out U.S. defense policy and maintains U.S. military forces. It includes the U.S. ArmyNavyMarine Corps, and Air Force, as well as an array of agencies with missions ranging from advanced technological research to defense cooperation with friendly countries. The department employs more than two million military and civilian personnel and operates military bases across the United States and abroad. The secretary of defense, the head of the department and the president’s principal defense policy advisor, stays up-to-date on the security situation in foreign countries and the possibilities and implications of U.S. military involvement. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces and the president’s top military advisor.

Intelligence Community

The U.S. intelligence community consists of seventeen agencies and organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which gather and analyze intelligence to help policymakers formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each of these agencies has its own mission; for example, the NSA focuses on signals intelligence (information gathered from communications and other electronic signals) and the Defense Intelligence Agency on military information. The director of national intelligence, the president’s principal advisor on intelligence issues, oversees this network of agencies with the aim of ensuring that they work together and deliver the best possible information to U.S. policymakers.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The secretary of the treasury, as head of this department, serves as one of the president’s chief economic advisors and is responsible for addressing a range of economic concerns, including growth, trade and investment, and the position of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury’s ten bureaus, which include the U.S. Mint and the Internal Revenue Service, do much of the department’s work, which ranges from collecting tax to printing currency and executing economic sanctions.

Department of Homeland Security

Created soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security works to counter and respond to risks to American security. It focuses on issues such as terrorism prevention, border security and immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity. Familiar agencies within the department include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks travelers and goods coming into the United States; the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the president and investigates financial crimes; and the Transportation Security Administration, which ensures security at airports. The secretary of homeland security oversees the department and advises the president on relevant issues.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes possible violations of federal law, represents the U.S. government in legal matters, oversees federal prisons, and works more broadly to prevent and respond to crime. Agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are part of the department, as are divisions focusing on particular areas of law, such as national security and civil rights. Leading the department is the attorney general, who offers legal advice to the president and the heads of other departments, including on matters under discussion in the NSC.

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Guide Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
attorney general:head of the Department of Justice and chief lawyer of the U.S. government. Among other duties, he or she offers advice on the legal aspects of proposed policies to the president and other department heads.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
blockade:an act of war wherein a foreign military cuts off access to a specific location, usually a port, to impede deliveries of supplies. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba—calling it a “quarantine” to avoid the implication of declaring war—in response to Soviet missile activity on the island.


Cabinet:the group comprising the vice president of the United States and the heads of all fifteen federal executive departments, such as the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, labor, and education. Other officials may also have cabinet rank, depending on the administration.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS):the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. The CJCS does not exercise command authority over U.S. troops, but instead works with the leaders of the U.S. military services to fulfill his function as the top military advisor to the president and other senior officials.
chief of staff to the president:a close advisor to the president who is responsible for coordinating the implementation of presidential policy and managing the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes the national security staff among many other entities.
cyberwarfare:defensive and offensive actions taken by a government or nonstate actor in the realm of information network systems and digital infrastructure. Specific actions include planting computer viruses, mounting denial-of-service attacks to disrupt internet and network activity, and conducting electronic surveillance.


deputies committee (DC):the intermediate-level setting, below the principals committee, for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system. Chaired by the deputy national security advisor, it comprises the second- and third-ranking leaders of the departments and agencies represented on the National Security Council. It manages the interagency process up and down, answering to the principals committee and assigning and reviewing the work of interagency policy committees.
director of national intelligence:the president’s principal advisor for intelligence-related matters and the head of the intelligence community, a network of seventeen agencies and organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that collect and analyze information to assist policymaking.


executive order (EO):a decision issued by the president that carries the full force and effect of law. An executive order usually instructs government departments and agencies to implement or modify particular policies or procedures.


foreign policy:a country’s attitudes and actions in the international arena. Foreign policy includes two principal elements: goals or interests as the country defines them, such as peace with one’s neighbors, and the means pursued to advance these interests, such as diplomatic negotiations, trade agreements, and military alliances. A country carries out its foreign policy through its dealings with other countries, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and nonstate actors such as corporations and advocacy groups.


interagency:involving two or more agencies. The National Security Council (NSC), for example, is an interagency forum, not a forum internal to any one agency.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Security Act:a law signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to reorganize the agencies and processes related to intelligence, foreign policy, and the military. Among its reforms, the act established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
national security advisor (NSA):the so-called honest broker of the national security policy process and the president’s principal advisor on national security issues. The NSA manages the National Security Council (NSC) staff, chairs the principals committee, and coordinates and manages policymaking with the goal of ensuring effective policy development and implementation.
National Security Council (NSC):an interagency body that serves as the forum for the president to discuss and take action on the most critical national security issues facing the United States. Its membership has varied since its creation in 1947, and now includes the president, vice president, national security advisor, secretaries of state and defense, and a variety of other senior officials.
National Security Council (NSC) staff:the president’s national security and foreign policy personnel. The NSC staff receives direction from the president via the national security advisor, provides expertise on issues and regions, and collaborates frequently with employees from other government departments and agencies to carry out the interagency policymaking process.
national security presidential memorandum:a type of presidential directive, or official order from the president, on matters related to national security. Called different names by different administrations, these documents may initiate a review of current policy, reorganize the structure of the national security policy apparatus, or lay out new strategies.
nonstate actors:individuals or groups that do not belong to or act on behalf of a state. This may refer to nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, media outlets such as the New York Times, or terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.


policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
principals committee (PC):the highest-level setting, aside from the National Security Council (NSC) itself, for debating issues in the NSC system. Generally chaired by the national security advisor, it comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, and other senior officials.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secretary of defense:the principal defense policy advisor to the president and head of the Department of Defense, which oversees the formulation and execution of defense policy and manages U.S. military forces.
secretary of energy:the head of the Department of Energy, which executes U.S. policy on energy, environmental, and nuclear issues and oversees seventeen national scientific research laboratories.
secretary of homeland security:the head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This department works to protect U.S. security by implementing federal policy concerning terrorism prevention, border security, immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity.
secretary of state:the president’s chief foreign affairs advisor, the country’s chief diplomat, and the head of the Department of State, which conducts the United States’ relationships with foreign countries and international organizations.
secretary of the treasury:one of the president’s chief economic advisors and head of the department of the treasury, which carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The department is home to the U.S. Mint and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.


tariff:a tax on goods arriving from a foreign country, generally used as a tool of trade and foreign policy to penalize adversaries or favor allies or domestic producers.


U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (UN):the ambassador-level official who advances U.S. foreign policy interests in the bodies and forums of the UN system.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.


vice president:the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. government and first in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to serve. Though given only one responsibility in the Constitution—to serve as president of the U.S. Senate, with the power to break ties—the vice presidency has become a visible part of the modern White House. Today’s vice presidents undertake a variety of functions, from serving as an all-purpose presidential advisor to carrying out diplomatic trips abroad. The personality of the individual who occupies this post and his or her relationship with the president define the scope of the role.
Case Notes Sections
Japan Coast Guard and protester
Japanese coast guard clash with a protester

“These kinds of incidents could very well ultimately drag the United States into it in one capacity or another. That’s the last thing we want.”

- Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, September 19, 2012

2.1 The Issue

Tensions between China and Japan have erupted in the East China Sea over the five small, uninhabited islands the Japanese refer to as the Senkaku and the Chinese call the Diaoyu. The islands have been the subject of competing sovereignty claims by China, Japan, and Taiwan for decades. For the past several years, Chinese and Japanese naval and air forces have come in frequent contact as Beijing and Tokyo have sought to demonstrate control over the islands. Given that their militaries are increasingly in contact in the waters of the East China Sea and the airspace above it, the risk of a miscalculation or accident has risen, raising concerns that the sovereignty dispute could lead to an armed clash between Asia’s two largest powers.

The United States has a long-standing policy of neutrality on the islands’ sovereignty. However, the United States is treaty bound to defend Japan, an ally, in the event of an attack. The United States also has a strong interest in maintaining a stable relationship with its largest trading partner, China. Accordingly, the United States needs to consider what price it would be willing to pay to fulfill its treaty commitment to Japan’s defense. Such deliberation is particularly important given that a change in U.S. policy or a U.S. intervention could alter the United States’ relationship with China or Japan and jeopardize other pressing interests that require the cooperation of either country. These interests include nuclear nonproliferation, global economic growth, climate change mitigation, and the safety of Americans abroad.

Japanese coast guard clash with a protester
Protester tears a Japanese flag in half

“Defend the Diaoyu Islands to the death”

- Banners held by demonstrators in Chengdu, China, August 19, 2012

2.2 Background 

Japan dates its sovereignty over the islands to 1895, when the Meiji government claimed the territory after determining that the islands were uninhabited and—in Japan’s estimation—therefore belonged to no one. For a number of years, a Japanese family privately owned the islands. After Japan was defeated in World War II, it was occupied from 1945 to 1952 by the United States, which administered the islands. The United States retained control of the islands even after the end of its occupation of Japan because of the islands’ strategic value as military bases, briefly using some of them as bombing ranges.

In 1969, the islands attracted attention when a geological survey revealed that they likely sit atop vast oil and gas reserves. Then, in 1971, as the United States was negotiating the return of the islands to Japan as part of the Okinawa Reserve Agreement, China and Taiwan began publicly issuing claims of ownership. Despite these declarations, President Richard M. Nixon concluded the agreement, transferring administrative control of Okinawa and the disputed islands back to Japan.

China argues that Japan illegally annexed the islands during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 as part of a “century of humiliation.” The islands, China maintains, should have been returned after World War II, when the Allied powers determined that Japan was to relinquish all territories taken from China. China dates its sovereignty over the islands to the fourteenth-century Ming dynasty and has provided documents and maps to support this claim. The Chinese describe the islands as historically critical to their defenses, shielding China from attacks by the Japanese and other parties along the lengthy Chinese coast.

Taiwan also argues that the islands were seized illegally by Japan in 1895 and should have been returned after World War II. It claims that when Japan was ordered to return its occupied territory in 1945, both the mainland and Taiwan belonged to the Republic of China. However, in 1949, the Chinese civil war led to a division of the country, during which the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China on the mainland and the government of the Republic of China fled to what is today Taiwan. Beijing claims Taiwan as a province, but Taiwan considers itself a separate country, and argues that its sovereignty over the islands should have been reinstated following World War II.

Although the United States transferred administrative control of the islands to Japan, it remains neutral on the islands’ sovereignty. Washington has stated that “a return of administrative rights over those islands to Japan, from which the rights were received, can in no way prejudice any underlying claims . . . nor can the United States, by giving back what it received, diminish the rights of other claimants.”

Despite disagreements over sovereignty, all three claimants have sought to diminish the effects of the dispute on their overall relations. Although China challenged Japan on sovereignty over the islands in the early 1970s, Chinese and Japanese leaders still successfully negotiated the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978. Economic interdependence between the two countries grew as China’s economic reforms began to take hold. Japanese assistance and private investment helped fuel the transformation of China’s economy through the 1980s. Taiwan also continued to assert its sovereignty over the islands but maintained close economic and political ties with Japan.

Tensions flared in 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese coast guard vessels near the islands. The Japanese detained the captain of the Chinese vessel for more than two weeks and charged him with obstructing the coast guard’s official duties. In retaliation, China temporarily halted exports to Japan of critical materials used in Japan’s high-tech manufacturing industry and arrested four Japanese businessmen, accusing them of spying on a Chinese military installation. Tensions were resolved when Japan released the captain and China agreed to release the detained Japanese, but the dispute remained a sensitive issue in both countries.

The issue has continued to be a source of friction between China and Japan. In 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated in parliament that his country would “expel by force” any Chinese landing on the islands. The next day, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson countered this statement and labeled the islands a “core interest” to China. Until that point, Beijing had used the term core interest only to describe regions such as Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang—areas it would supposedly defend with the use of force. Later that year, China unilaterally announced a new ADIZ over the East China Sea, an area that included the disputed islands.

China and Japan have both continued to send their aircraft and naval vessels into the area, yet political leaders in Beijing and Tokyo have also recognized the danger inherent in this increasing military interaction. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Abe met in November 2014, agreeing to resume various diplomatic talks, including over natural resources in the East China Sea, and to bolster communications channels. The two leaders have met repeatedly since, but tensions remain high. In August 2016, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels appeared in waters near the islands, accompanied for the first time by seven Chinese law enforcement vessels—a reminder that these differences between the two countries could easily trigger greater tensions in the East China Sea more generally.

In 2018, Beijing and Tokyo both expressed a desire to “reset” bilateral ties. To this end, the two countries resumed economic talks for the first time in seven years and established a crisis hotline to avert unintended incidents in the East China Sea. These developments, however, have not lessened either country’s involvement in the East China Sea. Japan has moved to build up its military strength, in part to counter Chinese activity in the region. China and Japan have each increased their military capabilities in the area, installing radar and missile systems and continuing to conduct military drills. The United States has participated in joint exercises with Japan, flying its aircraft over the East China Sea as well. Despite increased dialogue between the two countries, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remain a subject of contention and a potential source of conflict.

Japanese coast guard clash with a protester
Fighter flying over disputed waters

“And let me reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.”

- President Barack Obama, April 24, 2014

2.3 Role of the United States

The United States has several interests in the East China Sea. The United States has agreed to defend Japan when territories under the latter’s administration are threatened. The United States has stationed almost fifty thousand troops in and around Japan, contributing to the U.S. position as an Asia-Pacific power. The bulk are stationed in Okinawa Prefecture, close to the disputed islands. The U.S. military command in Japan has a close relationship with the country’s Self-Defense Forces and exercises often with it on core defense missions.

U.S. policy on the territorial dispute between China and Japan has emphasized a deescalation of military tensions and the pursuit of a peaceful settlement of differences. Washington has also sought to address Japan’s defense concerns in light of the Chinese military build-up and the increasing activity of Chinese military and maritime forces in waters near Japan. Although the United States has maintained its position of neutrality on the issue of sovereignty, it has also affirmed that its commitment to Japan’s defense includes any threat to the islands. In April 2014, during a visit to Tokyo, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to state unequivocally that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands fall under the protection of the U.S.-Japan security treaty. The Donald J. Trump administration has maintained this position.

Nevertheless, the United States has an interest in a peaceful resolution. Japan remains a close ally, but stable relations with China are also a significant interest. Washington seeks to expand cooperation with Beijing on other pressing issues, such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, and the global economy.

Both China and Japan wield influence on the U.S. economy. The United States conducted $635 billion in trade with China in 2017, and China has invested more than $140 billion in the U.S. economy since 2000. Similarly, Japan is responsible for some 860,000 U.S. jobs, and annual U.S. trade in goods with Japan totaled $204 billion in 2017. Equally important, China and Japan each hold more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt.

A miscalculation or use of force between Asia’s two largest powers would therefore destabilize the region, disrupt the global economy, and likely draw the United States into the dispute.

The United States also has an interest in maintaining and strengthening its presence in the Asia-Pacific region more broadly. Starting in 2012, when then President Obama called for a “pivot to East Asia,” Washington has sought to heighten foreign policy focus on the region. To this end, the United States has developed closer military ties with countries in the region, including Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam, in an attempt to counter China’s emergence as a great power. At the same time, the United States has sought to bolster its working relationship with China, supporting an array of confidence-building measures and inviting the Chinese navy to participate in joint military exercises.

In Asia, the pivot was seen as a response to China’s growing influence in the region. Many countries are concerned about China’s rising power and its potential to use its regional dominance to restrict other countries’ access to trade routes and freedom of navigation. Beijing has criticized the U.S. pivot as an effort to contain China, and the Chinese foreign ministry has repeatedly asked the United States to play a more neutral role in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute.


U.S. Policy Options

The United States has a number of options as it considers its role in trying to help resolve the East China Sea dispute.


Use diplomatic measures to reduce tensions

Washington could use its leverage to try to persuade Beijing and Tokyo to reduce their military forces in the region, or to encourage greater military-to-military communication. It could further urge the two parties to return to negotiations to resolve the dispute peacefully. If China and Japan cannot come to a peaceful resolution alone, the United States could attempt to persuade the parties to accept international arbitration and bring the matter before the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ). It could also express greater vocal support for either China or Japan, in hopes that this support would prompt the other party to stand down. However, if the United States were to lean in favor of China, Japan and other allies in the region might reassess their close relationships with the United States. And if Washington were to express support for Tokyo, Japan could interpret the support as a blank check to behave recklessly, thereby escalating the conflict.

A diplomatic approach has several advantages. If successful, it could peacefully achieve a lasting deescalation of tensions in the region. It also entails the least risk of drawing U.S. military forces into conflict and would help maintain stability in the region. Further, a diplomatic approach also poses a lower risk of damage to the United States’ economic relationships with China and Japan. That China and Japan can be persuaded to come to the negotiating table, however, is no guarantee. Meanwhile, Japan might criticize the United States for failing to enact a robust response that signals its commitment to Japan’s defense.


Use U.S. military forces to prevent escalation

The United States could use its military and naval forces to try to contain the incident and prevent escalation. Those efforts could involve offering search-and-rescue assistance for the downed aircraft, increasing naval and air patrols in the East China Sea, and conducting military exercises with Japan to increase readiness and demonstrate U.S. commitment to Japanese defense. Such action could keep Chinese and Japanese military forces separate, possibly avoiding further incidents, and deter escalation on the part of the Chinese. It would further signal U.S. resolve in the face of China’s military growth.

At the same time, involving U.S. military personnel in the dispute carries significant risks. The increase of military presence in the region could raise the chances of an accident or miscalculation; any U.S. military response would need to be effectively communicated to both Chinese and Japanese military forces in the area to minimize the risk of an unintended incident. Moreover, any escalation in the situation could put U.S. military personnel at risk. This response could also damage the U.S. relationship with China.


No action

The United States could simply maintain its neutrality and allow China and Japan to resolve the incident on their own. This option would avoid the risks that the other options pose, both to U.S. military personnel and to U.S. relations with China and Japan. However, taking no action could also signal a weak U.S. commitment to its presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Further, if China and Japan fail to come to a peaceful resolution and the situation escalates, the United States could face more forceful calls to honor its treaty commitment to defend Japan, requiring greater U.S. involvement than before.

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Case Notes Glossary


administrative rights:the practical and generally recognized control and management of a territory, even if its ultimate sovereignty may be disputed.
air defense identification zone (ADIZ):an area beyond a country’s sovereign airspace in which all aerial vehicles must be identified and can be intercepted before reaching the country’s territory. These zones aim to provide a country with warning should hostile aircraft approach its airspace. However, they are unregulated at the international level and not necessarily recognized by other states.
alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
Allied occupation of Japan:a military occupation of Japan established by the Allied powers, led by the United States, following Tokyo’s defeat in World War II. The occupation was headed by U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur. During the occupation, Japan’s government and society underwent sweeping reforms, including the establishment of a new constitution that renounces war. This constitution has been interpreted in the postwar era to allow for a self-defense force.
arbitration:a method of dispute resolution in which the parties submit their claims to an agreed-upon and impartial third party, who renders a decision that the parties agree to obey.


Century of Humiliation:the period in China’s history from 1839 to 1949 marked by Western imperialism, several wars, the imposition of treaties unfavorable to China, and its conquest by Japan.


East China Sea (ECS):the coastal waters shared by China to the west, the Republic of Korea to the north, Japan to the east, and Taiwan to the south.
East China Sea Peace Initiative:a 2012 proposal by President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan to resolve the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute via dialogue and negotiations, not military conflict, and to formulate a code of conduct for the East China Sea. It also supports joint development of the sea’s resources.


great power:a state with the military and economic resources to exercise significant, often decisive, influence over international affairs.


hotline:a standing line of communication between parties, especially for use in a crisis. An example is the “red telephone” established between Washington, DC, and Moscow during the Cold War.


Japan Coast Guard (JCG):the law enforcement agency that patrols Japan’s territorial waters, monitors maritime traffic, and promotes navigational safety.
joint military exercise:a simulation or war game conducted by the armed forces of two or more countries. Purposes can include increasing military preparedness, building trust, and displaying capabilities to adversaries.


Meiji government:the early government of the Empire of Japan, formed in 1868 and in place until 1912. It laid the foundations for modern Japan through widespread reforms, such as compulsory education, Japan’s first constitution, military modernization, and industrialization.


neutrality:the state of not supporting or assisting any side in a conflict. Switzerland is the best-known example of a neutral country today.


Okinawa:one of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures. It includes hundreds of islands known as the Ryukyu Islands. It was occupied by the United States from 1945 to 1972 and remains home to a significant U.S. military presence.
Okinawa Reversion Agreement:a 1971 agreement by which the United States formally returned control to Japan of several Japanese territories it had administered. Upon this transfer, the U.S. government took no position on the competing sovereignty claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which were part of the agreement.


pivot to Asia:a foreign policy strategy, later referred to as the “rebalance to Asia,” announced by the Obama administration in 2011 that calls for an increased U.S. focus on Asia. It includes such elements as reinforced alliances, stronger relations with emerging powers and regional organizations, new trade arrangements and other economic links, a more extensive U.S. military presence in the region, and the promotion of values such as democracy and human rights.


Sino-Japanese War:a conflict in 1894 and 1895 between Japan and China. Japan’s victory and subsequent occupation of Korea, Taiwan, and other territories marked the beginning of Japan’s Imperial expansion. This expansion, including Japan’s invasion and annexation of Manchuria in 1931, led in turn to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Japan’s aggression throughout the Pacific also led to World War II in that region.
sovereignty:supreme or absolute authority over a territory.


Taiwan:an island territory off the southeastern coast of mainland China. Occupied by Japan between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan came to constitute the Republic of China (ROC), with its own government, following civil war in China in the late 1940s. The mainland became the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, and it claims Taiwan as part of its territory. When the United States and Japan established formal diplomatic relations with the PRC in the 1970s, they acknowledged the “One China” formulation—Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China—to manage ties with Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 requires the United States to provide for the adequate defense of the island; Japan has no such commitment.
Treaty of Peace and Friendship:a 1978 treaty that normalized diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Japan following a 1972 joint communique to the same effect. The PRC was not a signatory to the San Francisco Peace Treaty, and therefore the two nations remained technically in a state of war until the normalization of relations in 1972. Until then, Japan had recognized the Republic of China (Taiwan), as had the United States. Imperial Japan occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945.


unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role

Welcome to your role as a participant in the National Security Council (NSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations” tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the NSC, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, or as a general advisor to the president, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your position memo and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the position memo and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Memoranda (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

You can learn about your role by reading the information provided on your role sheet, which can be found in the Guide to the Role-Play section (3.4).  Review this information thoroughly and often, as your objectives and strategy in the position memo and role-play will be shaped by the institutional perspective of the role you have been assigned (unless you are playing a general advisor). After you finish the role-play and subsequent debrief, you will have an opportunity to share your personal thoughts and recommendations on this case in a policy review memo (Section Four, Wrap-up).

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the NSC in general and of this NSC meeting in particular;
    • the U.S. interests at stake in the case and their importance to national security;
    • your role and your department or agency, including its purpose and objectives in the government and on the NSC;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your role;
    • the elements that a comprehensive policy proposal on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the NSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the U.S. interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of U.S. interests at stake in the case, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the president or other NSC members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP).

Reading List 


2.1 The Issue

Eric Posner, “Why are China and Japan Inching Toward War Over Five Tiny Islands?”, Slate, February 25, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/view_from_chicago/2014/02/the_senkaku_or_diaoyu_islands_where_world_war_iii_could_start_because_of.html

“China’s Maritime Disputes,” CFR.org InfoGuide, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/asia-and-pacific/chinas-maritime-disputes/p31345?cid=otr-marketing_use-china_sea_InfoGuide#!/.

“Explained: Diaoyu/Senkaku Island Dispute,” South China Morning Post, February 21 2019, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/explained/article/2187161/explained-diaoyu/senkaku-islands-dispute.


2.2 Background

Liu Dan, “Diaoyu Islands Dispute: A Chinese Perspective,” Diplomat August 8, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/08/diaoyu-islands-dispute-a-chinese-perspective/.

“How uninhabited islands soured China-Japan ties,” BBC, November 10, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-11341139.

“Tensions in the East China Sea,” Council on Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker, https://www.cfr.org/interactives/global-conflict-tracker#!/conflict/tensions-in-the-east-china-sea


2.6 Role of the United States

Sheila A. Smith, “A Sino-Japanese Clash in the East China Sea,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 2013, http://www.cfr.org/japan/sino-japanese-clash-east-china-sea/p30504.

 Michael D. Swaine, “China’s Maritime Disputes in the East and South China Seas,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 4, 2013, http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/04/04/maritime-disputes-must-be-carefully-managed/fxea

Beina Xu, “The U.S. -Japan Security Alliance,” CFR.org Backgrounder, July 1, 2014, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/us-japan-security-alliance.


Further Reading

Elizabeth C. Economy, “When Xi Meets Obama: Why China Won’t Get What It Wants Most,” CFR.org, September 11, 2015, http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2015/09/11/when-xi-meets-obama-why-china-wont….

Rodion Ebbighausen, “China Sea Neighbors Fight for Resources,” Deutsche Welle, April 11, 2013, http://www.dw.de/china-sea-neighbors-fight-for-resources/a-16712528.

Foreign Affairs, “Dispute in the East China Sea: A Foreign Affairs Mini-Anthology for Model Diplomacy,” https://www.foreignaffairs.com/DECS_eBook.

François Godement, “China Analysis: Shockwaves From the China/Japan Island Dispute,” European Council on Foreign Relations, February 27, 2013, http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/china_analysis_shockwaves_from_the_china_japan_island_dispute.

Yinan He, “Nationalism and the China-Japan Island Disputes,” CFR.org, September 18, 2012, http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2012/09/18/nationalism-and-the-china-japan-island-disputes/.

International Crisis Group, Dangerous Waters: China-Japan Relations on the Rocks, Asia Report No. 245, April 8, 2013, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/north-east-asia/china/dangerous-waters-china-japan-relations-rocks.

Amrita Jash, “Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute: identity versus territory,” Asia & The Pacific Policy Society, January 11, 2016, https://www.policyforum.net/diaoyusenkaku-islands-dispute-identity-versus-territory/

Pan Junwu, “Way Out: The Possibility of a Third Party Settlement for the Sino-Japanese Maritime Boundary Dispute in the East China Sea,” China: An International Journal 6, no. 2, 2008, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/china/summary/v006/6.2.junwu.html.  

Parag Khanna, “Avoiding World War III in Asia,” National Interest, June 17, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/avoiding-world-war-iii-asia-26313

Akiyama Masahiro, “Geopolitical Considerations of the Senkaku Islands,” Review of Island Studies, August 7, 2013, https://www.spf.org/islandstudies/research/a00007/.

Mie Oba, “Japan’s Multi-layered, Multilateral Strategy,” Diplomat, April 18, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/04/japans-multi-layered-multilateral-strategy/

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Diaoyu Islands Cannot Be Bought,” September 14, 2012, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/topics_665678/diaodao_665718/t970602.shtml.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Senkaku Islands Q&A,” June 5, 2013,   http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/senkaku/qa_1010.html.

Tom Phillips, Justin McCurry, Oliver Holmes and Vidhi Doshi, “‘An epochal change: what a Trump presidency means for the Asia Pacific region,” The Guardian, November 9, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/10/an-epochal-change-what-a-trump-presidency-means-for-the-asia-pacific-region

Rob Schmitz, “What Will A Trump Presidency Mean For China?”, NPR, November 10, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/11/10/501537328/what-will-a-trump-presidency-mean-for-china

Laura Schwartz, “Competition and Confrontation in the East China Sea and the Implications for U.S. Policy,” National Bureau of Asian Research, February 2014, http://www.nbr.org/downloads/pdfs/psa/EastChinaSea_Roundtable_report.pdf.

Paul J. Smith, “The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Controversy: A Crisis Postponed,” Naval War College Review 66, no. 2, spring 2013, https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/bfa92a47-1f5f-4c23-974c-f92e1ed27be4/The-Senkaku-Diaoyu-Island-Controversy--A-Crisis-Po.aspx.

Sheila A. Smith, “Japan, China, and the Tide of Nationalism,” CFR.org Expert Brief, September 19, 2012, http://www.cfr.org/asia-and-pacific/japan-china-tide-nationalism/p29080.

Sheila A. Smith, “Japan and the East China Sea Dispute,” Orbis, summer 2012,  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00304387/56/3?sdc=1

David A. Welch, “What’s an ADIZ?” Foreign Affairs, December 9, 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/140367/david-a-welch/whats-an-adiz.


Quotation Sources

BBC, “Xi Jinping Warns Japan Over East China Sea Dispute,” September 19, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-19646974.

Keith Bradsher, Martin Fackler, and Andrew Jacobs, “Anti-Japan Protests Erupt in China Over Disputed Island,” New York Times, August 19, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/20/world/asia/japanese-activists-display-flag-on-disputed-island.html?pagewanted=all

Barack Obama, “Joint Press Conference with President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan,” White House, April 24, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/04/24/joint-press-conference-president-obama-and-prime-minister-abe-japan.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. In completing this section and Section Four, you will write two memoranda, or memos. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how U.S. foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.

What is a memorandum?

  • A memo is a formal, succinct written message from one person, department, or organization to another. It is an important form of formal, written communication in the workplace. A memo is generally short, to the point, and free of flowery language and extraneous information. A memo is typically informative or decision-oriented and is formatted in a way that helps readers quickly grasp the main points.
  • In the National Security Council (NSC), memos consider, coordinate, and articulate policy options. They help analyze, evaluate, advocate, and channel those policy options and decisions within the bureaucracy.
  • Memos also function as historical record. Many memos related to NSC discussions and presidential decisions are filed in government archives. Some are later declassified and released to help people understand how policy was devised at a given time in U.S. history. You can access historical examples of memos online. One such resource is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists and offers links to memoranda and directives that various U.S. presidents have issued.

Position Memo 


  • The first memo everyone (except the president) writes is called a position memo. It is written from the perspective of your assigned role. It presents a set of policy options for consideration by the NSC and recommends one of them to the president. The recommendation, or position, outlined in this memo is the one you will present during the role-play. (Keep in mind you may change your position as a result of the role-play discussion.)
  • The position memo will help your fellow NSC members consider the issue efficiently and facilitate decision-making by the president. Equally important, it will help you clarify your understanding of the case by forcing you to identify the essential facts and viable policy options.
  • If you have been assigned a specific role, remember that you are writing from the point of view of the department, agency, or office you represent. Using your institutional position as a lens, you will outline a set of options to address the crisis. Make sure you take into account the pros, cons, and ramifications of each option as it pertains to your role and as it is informed by your reading of the case materials and further research. Also, anticipate critiques of your proposed policy and incorporate your response into the memo. Doing so will help you prepare for the role-play.

Note: If you are assigned the role of president, you will not write a position memo. Instead, you will write a two-page presidential directive, or PD, at the conclusion of the role-play. You will address the PD, which will follow a memo format, to the NSC members and inform them of your final decision regarding the policy option or options to be implemented (see below).

If your teacher has chosen to assign everyone the role of general advisor to the president, you will not need to write the position memo from a particular institutional position. Instead, you will have the flexibility to approach the issue from your own perspective, incorporating a comprehensive assessment of the crisis into your argument.


Position Memo Guidelines

Total length: approximately one thousand words

  • Subject and background (two short paragraphs): Summarize in the first paragraph the significance of the issue in the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Identify in the second the central policy question or questions to be decided. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader understands your memo’s purpose and importance; do not attempt to discuss the case in any depth.
  • Objectives (bullet points): Succinctly state your department’s objectives in the current crisis. These can be general national security objectives (such as preventing war) or more specific goals tied to your department’s mission (such as protecting U.S. citizens). They should be important to U.S. national security, directly tied to the case, and feasible. These objectives should guide the policy analysis and recommendation that make up the rest of your memo.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph for each option): Present and analyze several options for U.S. policy. Discuss their costs, benefits, and resource needs where possible. To illuminate the trade-offs inherent in complex policy decisions, be sure to acknowledge the weaknesses or disadvantages of each proposed option. No option is likely to be perfect.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify your preferred policy option or options and describe how you think it or they could be carried out. Explain your reasoning, keeping in mind that you aim to convince the president to follow your recommendation. Addressing the weaknesses or disadvantages you identified in the options and analysis section can help strengthen your argument.

Click here to see a sample position memo.

Presidential Directive


The format of the presidential directive is simpler than that of a position memo. A directive contains a record of the policy option or options that the president has chosen as well as the accompanying orders to various parts of the government with details on how to carry out these decisions.

  • Start with a short paragraph describing the purpose of the memo. Everyone you are writing to was in the NSC meeting, so only brief context is needed.
  • Explain in numbered paragraphs the decisions you have made, why you have made them, and any details regarding how you want the decisions carried out.
  • Explain the communications strategy for the decision, considering both relevant foreign governments and the public. Also, consider that you may wish to keep certain elements of the decision secret from the public.
  • Include any additional details before you sign.
  • Be sure to include all the information necessary for NSC members to understand and carry out your intentions.

Click here  to see a sample presidential directive.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

During the simulated NSC meeting, you will meet to debate and discuss U.S. policy options in response to the issues outlined in the case. Consistent with the NSC’s mission to advise the president, you should raise the issues that are most important for the president to consider. This will enable him or her to make the most informed decision on policy options. Though you may or may not agree with this decision, your responsibility as an NSC member is to provide the best possible analysis and advice from the perspective of your role.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The National Security Advisor (NSA) will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the NSA.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the NSA, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the NSA calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address the president as Mr. or Madam President and your fellow NSC members in the same fashion (for example, Madam Secretary).
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the NSA will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic. Remember that you must advise the president so that he or she can reach a decision on a precise policy question.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a government official, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the NSC during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse.
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other NSC members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
2 to 3 minutes per participant
  1. Present initial positions to the president.
  2. Investigate the nuances of the positions through questioning.
  3. Clarify the central questions to be debated.
Procedural Notes

Each participant presents his or her position statement. If time permits, the president may ask questions to understand each NSC member’s position and bring out the essential questions he or she wishes to debate.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Clarify the obstacles, risks, opportunities, and threats.
  2. Evaluate the various positions on their merits.
Procedural Notes

This is the debate portion of the role-play, when participants can defend their recommendations against others’ and identify potential areas of compromise or agreement.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Narrow the options to a few comprehensive and well- focused strategies that the president prefers.
  2. Provide the president with clear recommendations (from NSC members), perhaps as a consensus or through a vote.
  3. Arrive at a final presidential decision 
Procedural Notes

This round should start with the president’s stating one to three preferred options to be fleshed out.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief 

After the debate and deliberation close, the president will announce his or her decision, to be later finalized in the form of a written presidential directive (PD). If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the president’s announcement. 

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the final presidential decision. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of crafting foreign policy. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.  

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Which U.S. interests did the group or the president prioritize in the PD and why? Were you comfortable with this prioritization?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the policymaking process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on foreign policy decision-making?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the National Security Council discussion and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the full spectrum of arguments and considerations that arose. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the president’s decision where appropriate.

If you played the role of president in the simulation, your memo should still reflect your personal opinion. You can comment on the course of action you ordered as president, further justify it, write more extensively on the options you dismissed, or suggest and support alternate options.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all you have learned. Your instructor will want to see whether and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to U.S. foreign policy and national security. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the president’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options discussed during the debate, deliberation, or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the president chose, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the presidential directive are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the president should have included in his directive, or what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a department or agency.

Click here to see a full example of a policy review memo.