Beijing’s maritime encirclement strategy compared to Go


Alexander Vurving from the Honolulu-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies takes the Chinese board game of weiqi or Go to describe the country’s grand strategy in the disputed South China Sea in an article written for the website of National Interest magazine on Dec. 8.

Vurving said that while chess is a game of checkmate, Go is a game of encirclement. “There are no kings, queens or pawns as there are in chess, only identical stones whose power depends on where they are in the larger arrangement of the pieces. If chess is a contest of armies, weiqi is a struggle between configurations,” he wrote. While chess players focus on the destruction of the enemy’s physical power, Go players strive for control of strategic positions.

China’s land reclamation programs in the Spratly and Paracel islands is a symbol of the nation’s strategy to occupy strategic positions. The most powerful weapon China has in the region is its nuclear submarine base at Yuling on Hainan island. Vurving said however that the location of the submarine base remains far from the disputed waters. What China is most likely to do is to expand its influence in the region through the use of fishing boats and lightly armed government vessels, he said.

Quoting from a senior US diplomat, Vurving said great powers do not to go to war with each other over rocks. A leading scholar of Chinese naval development said that an international incident in the South China Sea will not bring major danger to the global balance of power nor even to the normal functioning of the international system. From the perspective of Go players, China’s strategy in the disputed waters is a masterclass in how to play the game, according to Vurving.

The goal of this strategy is to gain control of the region through creeping expansion instead of major battles. With its land reclamation, China can slowly expand the territory it controls in the South China Sea. Vurving said the first step for China is to avoid open armed conflict as much as possible. Second, China must try its best to control the most strategic positions over the disputed region.

Third, Vurving said China has to develop these strategic positions into strong points of control. The People’s Liberation Army must establish important logistics and military bases in the region for power projection in the future, he said. China’s grand strategy is basically trading quantity for quality, according to Vurving. Five of the six reefs of the Spratly islands currently under Beijing’s control are among the most strategic features in the archipelago, the author said.

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