You may have heard the phrase “they’re playing chess while we’re playing checkers” — to imply one side is strategically outmatched by another — but when it comes to strategy, chess and checkers are not the only two games in town.
There is another game of strategy, an ancient one born in China, and it may hold the key to understanding how the Chinese really think. It is called weiqi (roughly pronounced “way-chee”), also known as “Go” in Japan, and “Baduk” in Korea.
Several years ago, a professor at the Army War College named David Lai took on this same topic, outlining the differences in how Western and Asian (primarily Chinese) militaries think when it comes to geopolitics and military doctrine.
The West primarily plays a game of chess, bolstered by classics like Clausewitz’s “On War” and lessons learned in Napoleonic and Ancient Roman campaigns. Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu and his now widely known military treatise “The Art of War” have made their way into western reading lists too — but there remains a fundamental difference in the way the differing cultures organically approach strategic thinking.
The game, already well known in the days of Confucius and still wildly popular in Asia, is starkly different from chess, the classic Western game of strategy. The object of Go is to place stones on the open board, balancing the need to expand with the need to build protected clusters.
Chess begins with force on force and pieces that have a specific and limited arsenal of moves, mirroring the values of rugged individualism and accountability of the West. Go begins with an empty board where each piece is equally important and completely flexible in its abilities, mirroring the collectivist nature of Chinese culture.
Go features multiple battles over a wide front, rather than a single decisive encounter. Think of it more as zone defense rather than man to man coverage. It emphasizes long-term planning over quick tactical advantage, and games can take hours or even days.
David Lai’s best-known work about the nexus between Go and Chinese geopolitical strategy is a 2004 paper called “Learning From the Stones,” a direct reference to the 361 black and white stone pieces that eventually fill a 19-by-19 Go board. In it, he described China’s long-term and indirect approach to acquiring influence. He also zeroed in on concrete geopolitical challenges such as Taiwan, which he described, in terms of Go, as a single isolated stone next to a huge mass of opposing pieces.
In the mind of the Chinese, Taiwan is a vulnerable single stone that the U.S. should want to trade/give up for a better position elsewhere on the global game board. But Americans see Taiwan not as a bargaining chip, but rather an ally it has supported diplomatically and militarily for almost 70 years.
Lai was not the only one who saw these connections. Throughout his book “On China,” Henry Kissinger uses weiqi to explain Chinese crisis management during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, many other conflicts in Southeast Asia, and in China’s diplomatic dealings with the United States and the former Soviet Union.
In the first days of the Korean conflict, for example, President Harry Truman sent U.S. troops to South Korea and the U.S. Navy to the Taiwan Strait. He had, “in Chinese eyes,” Mr. Kissinger writes, “placed two stones on the wei qi board, both of which menaced China with the dreaded encirclement.” Thus, despite being war-weary and impoverished, China felt the need to confront the U.S. directly.
The game can also be used to interpret other Chinese behavior like China’s participation in antipiracy efforts in the Indian Ocean — this was the first time that China undertook blue-water naval operations in support of an international coalition. The West has a tendency to see this type of cooperation as responsible behavior on China’s part.
Weiqi teaches us that China holds a different view: this gave them the opportunity to expand their influence in Africa. Like a strong weiqi player should, China is always looking at the strategic long game.
One might argue that chess also plays a long game — but in saying that, you would be betrayed by an inherently western way of thinking. A well thought out gambit in chess might mean three moves. In weiqi, 30 moves (likely more) is just the beginning of any given gambit. The western version of the long game is equivalent to expediency in Chinese strategy.
These theories are not universally embraced by China experts, nor should they be. Comparing national strategic thought to board games is an over-simplification at best — some of China’s actions in recent years fly in the face of the patient practice of a game like weiqi, appearing more direct like the Chinese version of chess, or xiangqi — but it is a useful place to start.
The best strategic minds draw from a variety of disciplines and knowing ALL of them can only be an advantage.
All images courtesy of Flickr.com.