China and the US; Weiqi and Chess; Strategic Thinking vs. Tactical Thinking

In 1972, in Beijing, Henry Kissinger asked Chou En-lai, the then Chinese foreign minister if he thought the French Revolution of 1789 had benefited humanity. “We Chinese feel it is too soon to tell,” Chou answered. As James Pinkerton wrote,
“sitting atop 5000 years of Chinese history, Chou had a point: it can’t hurt to let events unfold before rushing to judgment. The Chinese, after all, invented the game of weiqi — known in the West by its Japanese name, go — which requires the utmost in patience and a sense of long-term positioning. And that outlook spills over into geopolitics; the Chinese worked on their Great Wall, on and off, from the 7th century BC to the 17th century AD.”

Before proceeding with my thesis, a bit of background on Weiqi: The game known in English as go, Igo in Japanese, Weiqi in Chinese, Baduk in Korean — is not just more difficult and subtle than chess. It may also be the world’s oldest surviving game of pure mental skill.

As for the origin of the game of Weiqi, it is known to have been developed in China, but the dates are open to much speculation. One story has it that it was invented by the Emperor Yao (ruled 2357-2256 B.C.) as an amusement for his idiot son . A second claims the Emperor Shun (ruled 2255-05) B.C created the game in hopes of improving his weak-minded son’s mental prowess . Finally , a third theory suggests that Weiqi was developed by court astrologers during the Chou Dynasty(1045-255 B.C.). In any event , it is generally agreed that Weiqi/GO is at least 3000 to 4000 years old which makes it the world’s oldest strategic board game. The origin of Chess being circa 600 AD, considerably later than Weiqi/GO.

Although I am a “newbie” to the game of Weiqi, the differences between Chess and Weiqi quickly became clear to me. At the same time, those dissimilarities seemed to reflect as well the differing approaches to foreign policy and diplomacy of China and the United States.

Whereas Chess is, as one Grandmaster put it, “99% tactical”, Weiqi/GO is a game of strategy. Militarily, Chess is a single battle; Weiqi is a multi-front war. The former is conducted on an 8×8 board; the latter on one of 19×19 squares or 361 interstices. Chess is a game that relies entirely on the left hemisphere of our brain, the analytical function; Weiqi requires the employment of both left and right brain hemispheres – analytical and perception of spatial patterns respectively. Chess is designed for short term engagement and Weiqi for the long term.

Before proceeding to my main thesis and the role the games play in today’s geopolitical joust I submit below a table outlining some of the more salient features of the two games. These features and how they relate to geopolitical theory will be readily apparent.

Object Of The Game
Chess: Checkmate Opposing King = Total Victory
Weiqi: Obtain Larger Territory = Greater “market share”

Brain Functions Used In Playing
Chess: Almost Entirely Analytical (left brain).
Weiqi: Fully utilizes/integrates analytic (left brain) and artistic/pattern recognition (right brain) functions. Intuitive analysis. One requiring multi-tasking.

Number of possible First Moves.
Chess: 20 White x 20 Black = 400.
Weiqi: 361 Black x 360 White = 129960, although symmetry reduces this number to an effective 32,490.

Estimated Number of Possible Board Configurations
Chess: 10 to the 120th power
Weiqi: OMNI Magazine in June, 1991 proposed 10 to the 761th, but most believe that the correct figure is really on the order of 10 to the 174th.

Military Analogy
Chess: A single battle.
Weiqi: An entire multi-front war.

The Nature of Play
Chess: Primarily tactical, with only a modest strategic component.
Weiqi: Profoundly strategic, but with incisive, complex, integral tactics.

Countries Using This Kind Of Thinking In Their Political Decision Making.
Chess: US, Western Democracies, Russia, and Eastern European Nations.
Weiqi: China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore.

(For more detailed information about the differences between Weiqi and Chess I refer the reader to the following online references:

So, what does all this have to do with China and the US and their respective approaches to geopolitics?

A recent Pentagon report describes Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy as one that aims to project Chinese power overseas and protect China’s energy security at home. In fact, that “string of pearls” is closely linked to the technique of the game of Weiqi.

Amongst the Western nations there is a certain impatience in problem solving, but it is the United States in particular that is easily frustrated by protracted disputes and wars. They want a quick resolution and when it is not forthcoming, they abandon their objectives or change them. They want quick solutions – the “Desert Storm” war in Iraq, Grenada, Panama – in and out with a minimum of fuss. They do not like Vietnams or Koreas that drag on, or Somalias that get messy. Now as “Enduring Freedom” drags on into the third year with no end in sight, the American public is becoming restive and unhappy once again. Eventually, this discontent will percolate upward into the government.

While the United States, a Chess player, is tightly focused on the Iraqi/Middle East conflict, which it considers to be the key to world peace and a springboard for global American hegemony, the Chinese are playing Weiqi on the global game board; with long term goals and multi-front objectives. (See comparative chart above.)

While other global interests and alliances burn, America fiddles in the Middle East.

China, on the other hand, is moving quietly and effectively to forge commercial alliances that bring substantial and long term political influence and benefits. Let us have a look at China’s diplomatic efforts over the last two years

1. China has, for all purposes, finessed the United States in South East Asia by creating its own ad hoc version of ASEAN with bilateral agreements.

2. To secure and broaden its energy sources it has invested in port facilities in Pakistan- I quote from the Asia Times: ” When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits Pakistan this month to inaugurate the Gwadar deepsea port, China will take a giant leap forward in gaining a strategic foothold in the Persian Gulf region. It will advance what a recent Pentagon report describes as Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy that aims to project Chinese power overseas and protect China’s energy security at home.”

3. In Africa China recently visited Angola with a view to contracting for petroleum supplies from that country

4. China held joint naval maneuvers with India and France and is moving forcefully to create ever stronger commercial ties with the EU. The prospect of penetrating the enormous Chinese market almost certainly will prompt the EU to lift the arms embargo on China and closer political ties will follow. China, in the not too distant future, could supplant the US as the EU’s major tradiing and political partner.

5. Even more intriguing, with greater consequences for the US, are China’s deft moves into Latin America. A few months ago China embarked on a whirlwind tour of Mexico, Argentina, Brasil and Venezuela. China committed to investing $20 billion in Argentina over the next ten years and $7 billion in Brasil immediately to improve Brasil’s roads, railways and ports. In total China plans to shell out $50 billion over ten years in Latin America. In that regard please read the following New York Times article of 2 March 2005

“Latin America is becoming a rich destination for China in its global quest for energy, with the Chinese quickly signing accords with Venezuela, investing in largely untapped markets like Peru and exploring possibilities in Bolivia and Colombia.

China’s sights are focused mostly on Venezuela, which ships more than 60 per cent of its crude oil to the United States. With the largest oil reserves outside West Asia, and a president who says his country needs to diversify its energy business beyond the United States, Venezuela has emerged as an obvious contender for Beijing’s attention.

The Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, accompanied by a delegation of 125 officials and businessmen, and Vice President Zeng Qinghong of China signed 19 cooperation agreements in Caracas late in January. They included long-range plans for Chinese stakes in oil and gas fields, most of them now considered marginal but which could become valuable with big investments.

Chavez has been engaged in a war of words with the Bush administration since the White House gave tacit support to a 2002 coup that briefly ousted him.

Still, Venezuela is a major source for American oil companies, one of four main providers of imported crude oil to the United States, inexorably linking the two countries’ interests.

‘‘The United States should not be concerned,’’ Rafael Ramírez, Venezuela’s energy minister, said in an interview, ‘‘because this expansion in no way means that we will be withdrawing from the North American market for political reasons.’’ In recent months, though, China’s voracious economy has brought it to Venezuela, and much of South America, in search of fuel.

‘‘The Chinese are entering without political expectations or demands,’’ said Roger Tissot, an analyst who evaluates political and economic risks in leading oil-producing countries for the PFC Energy Group in Washington.

China’s entry is worrisome to some American energy officials, especially because the US is becoming more dependent on foreign oil at a time when foreign reserves remain tight.

Chinese interest in Venezuela, a senior committee aide said, underlines Washington’s lack of attention toward Latin America. ‘‘For years and years, the hemisphere has been a low priority for the US, and the Chinese are taking advantage of it,’’ the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘‘They’re taking advantage of the fact that we don’t care as much as we should about Latin America.’’ (my bold print)

To be sure, China, the world’s second-largest consumer of oil, has emerged as a leading competitor to the US in its search for oil, gas and minerals throughout the world — notably Central Asia, West Asia and Africa. —NYT”

6. Beyond the events outlined above, one should pay special attention to Latin America and its inexorable move, or rather return, to the Left, a development that can only benefit China. There are now four significant Latin American governments which have leftist credentials: Argentina, Brasil, Venezuela and the freshly minted, newly elected government in Uruguay. The latter, Uruguay, just reopened the Cuba embassy in Montevideo. Cuba, which had been written off after its “sugar daddy”, the USSR collapsed and withdrew its financial largesse to Cuba, is now experiencing a political renaissance. All those socialist left leaning countries can be counted on as strong allies for China; all of them have a history of barely repressed anti-Americanism. They will welcome a counterweight to what they perceive as the domineering and powerful neighbour to the North.

Two points in the NYT article above stand out: 1) the Chinese soft approach – they are entering without expectations – no strings, no small print; they are accumulating a reserve of credits in good will and 2) the Chinese are taking advantage of US neglect of the Latin American regions. The Chinese are looking to the future for its return, to the long term, not to short term gains.

The Chinese are waging a multi front, non-military war while the US is obsessed with extending its domain by threat, and military coercion; seemingly incapable of the multi tasking necessary to look after its global interests. The US is investing several hundred billion dollars in a war, which in the end will bring not benefit to the United States, only grief and increasing, unsustainable debt. In the meanwhile, the Chinese are accumulating trade surpluses, over $200 billion in credit from the United States in the form of Treasury Notes and political and trade alliances.

China is following the basic principles and concepts of Weiqi; the US are looking to those of Chess.

· Acquiring territory by isolating its opponent’s pieces, by finessing them. not using force and the assumption that removing the “King” or the opponents “pieces” will secure victory

· Engaging in a multi front effort: not narrowly concentrating and counting on a single objective to achieve its ends

Finally, a quote: “Dr. Hans Berliner, a leading Chessmaster, former World Correspondence Chess Champion, Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of those whose work on chess led to the development of IBM’s Deep Blue and its descendants said: “You don’t have to be really good anymore to get good results. Chess is winding down…..What’s happening with Chess is that it’s gradually losing its place as the par excellence of intellectual activity”. And he concluded: “Smart people in search of a challenging board game might try a game called Go…”

The people doing war games in Washington should take note; they might want to reconsider their tactical and narrow approach in favour of a more strategic one, one that employs the whole brain, not half of it.

Categories:China, Geopolitics, USA

Tagged as: ,

1 reply »

  1. Enjoyed your article. Makes me want to take up Weiqi but until then it is fun to watch this global game though the US sometimes seems to be playing nothing more than Snap!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.