By Lieutenant Colonel Christopher P. Mulder, USAF
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Over the last several months, my family and I dove into learning how to play the oldest strategy game on the planet, “Go”. This was part of my overall quest to better understand the Chinese mindset as it relates to their stated goal of hegemony by 2049. After researching and playing Go, I recommend that all military leaders become familiar with this game to better interpret and possibly understand China’s moves on the world stage.
So, what exactly does a strategy game have to do with the United States’ strategic approach to China? Let’s Go and find out. The current China strategy and branding approach, Great Power Competition, is too Chess-like; either we win or lose in relation to the Chinese. A better and much more nuanced strategy needs to be developed after answering a few key questions. Understanding how the Chinese think and approach problems are vital to creating this strategy.
Weiqi, or Go in English, is an ancient and very popular Chinese strategy game. In the West, we are more familiar with games like Stratego, Chess, and Risk. These popular strategy games teach foundational concepts that lead to more nuanced strategic thinking. The difference between Go and the games better known in Western culture is Go requires even greater long-term vision and complex strategic thought to win. Viewing China’s geopolitical actions through the lens of Go may shed light on the Chinese mindset and expected future actions related to their vision of becoming the global hegemon by 2049.
Go was created more than 2,500 years ago and continues to stand the test of time without change to the game’s core premise. It is an abstract strategy board game in which two players try to control more territory than their opponent using small game pieces called stones. The game may look simple at the outset with just two colors of stones and a plain grid playing board; it is anything but. This complex game of strategy has significantly more possible moves than Chess; 10360 compared to Chess’ 10123 possible moves. Numerous tactics can be employed as part of the player’s overall strategy. To win, a player must maintain a balance of “live”, “dead”, or “unsettled” stone groups, which drive how much territory the player ends up controlling at the end of the game. A “live” stone group can expand and is not in jeopardy of being captured. A “dead” stone group has either been captured or will be captured. An “unsettled” group could go either way, becoming a “live” or “dead” stone group. Each player must think ahead and exploit the opponent’s weaker groups while remaining aware of the life, death, or unsettled status of one’s stones. Compare this to the single-minded focus of chess, capture the King, Go is much more complex with players needing to focus on ever-growing strength, influence, and power. While the Western world continues to play and teach far less complicated strategy games, the Chinese are not only teaching Go, but they are also actively playing it in the real world.
Chinese President, Mr. Xi, used to play the strategy game Go with his former boss, Mr. Geng, a former Chinese Defense Minister. This should drive us to learn more about this game and how it impacts the United States’ approach to developing a much more refined strategy toward China. In a Military.com article called: A New Fitness Culture and the Future of Force Design, the current Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General “CQ” Brown outlines his more inventive methods to missions. He states, “The more we understand and look through the lens of how [the enemy operates], how they think, how they make their decisions…it may provide opportunities for us to look at how we look at deception, how we change behavior, or how we change perception. It may drive how we do things differently”. This mindset may be well suited to embrace and include the concepts learned from Go as the US continues to develop military strategies.
Henry Kissinger, in his 2011 book On China, describes the game Go as a strategic encirclement that generates strategic flexibility. A significant mental shift amongst US strategists is needed to move away from the Chess-like framework of the Great Power Competition laid out in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). Now is the time to build a long-lasting strategic framework toward China that allows subsequent presidential administrations tactical flexibility and space to analyze and adjust their approach toward China.
The RAND report: “Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future” explains the Chinese approach, to include their mindset and calculations. Studying the US and Chinese strategies in the early 1990s exposes some of these differences. The United States simply expects to win military confrontations. This is why the United States reacted to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by throwing its military weight into the region to protect national interests. As expected, the United States drove the Iraqi military out of Kuwait thirty years ago in early 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. Once the United States achieved the objective by removing Iraq as a regional threat, it transitioned to an ill-defined containment policy with no true end-state.
While the United States spent a decade trying to figure out what to do with Iraq, China was executing their “calculative strategy”. This complex strategy creates internal and external space to allow for China’s continued ascent to the global hegemon by 2049. China continued with its strategy as the United States dealt with the tragedy of 9/11 and the subsequent Global War on Terrorism. Finally, the United States woke up after decades of not paying much attention to China’s goals for the world order. In the 2017 NSS, the United States declared China a near-peer and stated that our nation is back in the Great Power Competition. The current NSS has three main themes related to China: 1) continue to cooperate; 2) maintain strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with the “One China” policy; and 3) contest unfair economic, trade, and technology practices. But how do these three objectives, and even the current strategy’s four national pillars, translate into the long-term vision of the United States’ place in the world? The United States is often left playing whack-a-mole as the next “crisis” emerges; i.e. North Korean nuclear weapons, Iranian proxy aggression, and ISIS. Meanwhile, the Chinese continue their slow and steady path—until more recently, with little attention or containment and in all domains. For example, the Chinese space probe Chang’e-5 planted their flag on the moon and retrieved moon samples and they also heralded their Mars’ rover Zhurong mission a complete success. Both Chinese space developments seemed to come out of nowhere. Could it be that our strategic education and training falls short when compared to other countries, specifically the Chinese focus on a Go-like mentality?
It is interesting to consider the foundational principles of Go in the context of the Chinese aspirations for global domination. In Go, as in the current geopolitical environment, the Chinese are focused on the “long-game”. A tactical loss can be a calculated maneuver that leads to a strategic win. Opponents are focused on detecting weakness and then capitalizing on that vulnerability over an extended period. These principles begin to sound familiar when considering China’s approach to Hong Kong and their recent aggressive moves to take away Hong Kong’s autonomy. What about Chinese saber-rattling over Taiwan? The same can be said about China’s modus operandi in a variety of different domains—geographical, economic, information—daily around the world. Just look at the way China has infiltrated and grown their influence across the African continent or how they have created an ambiguous US national security concern with the Chinese-government controlled social media platform, TikTok. All these examples are unsettled, but the trend is a live situation where the Chinese have the momentum to capture territory or information. Just consider Taiwan and the Spratly Islands or the theft of the United States’ commercial and government intellectual property, which has cost the United States economy billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs. An example of China driving the other player into a dead move is when a country agrees to Chinese resource extraction in return for infrastructure improvements. This move entails the Chinese playing the “debt trap” as in the case of Kenya’s 80% Chinese-financed railway from Mombasa to Nairobi. This project alone accounts for 6% of Kenya’s GDP. Kenya will be beholden to the Chinese for many years to come. It is a fait accompli or “dead” Go move in the eyes of China. As China continues to execute its steady strategy around the globe, one can see how smaller Chinese moves, like in Kenya, will eventually lead to a powerful China that does not adhere to the world’s rules-based order.
The United States needs to starkly wake up and see the relatively benign Chinese intrusions for what they really are; a threat to the world’s rules-based order. If we are to compete with China, the United States must stop executing chess-like strategy and develop a full-bodied, long-term strategy that goes well beyond the three goals of the 2017 NSS.
Over the last year, several well-thought-out strategies and thought pieces have been published, The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy, Global Strategy 2021: An Allied Strategy for China, Priorities for a Transatlantic China Strategy, and The China Plan: A Transatlantic Blueprint for Strategic Competition. Matt Kroenig, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, makes a strong and compelling case in his 2020 book, The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. He argues democracies will prevail over autocracies by leveraging uniquely democratic economic, military, and diplomatic advantages.
After reading these strategies, learning how to play Go, discussing China with experts, and answering a few key questions, I firmly believe that General Brown is right. We must think like the Chinese think if we are going to succeed in challenging their pursuit of global hegemony. One way to do this is to understand how the Chinese are playing Go throughout the real world and setting the stage for “capturing” territory or influence. This understanding will lead the US to more nuanced, better, and long-lasting national security and defense strategies we need to counter China’s 2049 hegemony aspiration.
Below are a few informal thoughts and observations from the game as my family and I learned how to play.
Initial Observations – We were very familiar with Chess, Stratego, and Risk; much less so with Go. We were highly impressed to learn that the game has more move options than atoms in the universe. We were somewhat skeptical of the fuss this game has garnered by strategists and others over the years. Nonetheless, we decided to order the strategy game. Of course, Amazon had a plethora of options, and within a few days’ time, we were playing a twenty-dollar version of Go.
Observation #1 – As we laid out the game for the first time, we discussed how the board was intimidating—rules were non-existent, multiple small boxes composed the game board, and hundreds of round little white and black pieces. However, we soon discovered that there are thousands of resources on the internet to guide a new player. One organization, The China Institute, headquartered in New York City, even teaches Go for $300 a session.
Observation #2 – All the playing pieces were uniform, with no distinction between them, unlike chess pieces, where each piece has a specific role to play.
Observation #3 – There are so many possible moves that sticking to one specific strategy is challenging. On the contrary, this does allow for strategic flexibility if the vision is clear.
Observation #4 – It is easy for the “losing” player to fall behind the power curve, and it becomes very difficult to recover. It felt like there was a snow-ball effect. As momentum built for the “winning” player, it was very difficult to conceptually rebuild an executable strategy.
Observation #5 – It was mentally difficult to transition from a well-defined strategy game like chess to a strategy game that entailed much more ambiguity.
Observation #6 – Traditionally, the goal of most games is to defeat the other opponent by removing them from the game board or capturing a specific game piece. Removing stones, however, is not the primary goal of the game. Securing territory is the goal. It took some time to fully understand the difference between a traditional strategy game and Go.
Observation #7 – As we reflected on how our play improved, we wondered if we had a chance against an Artificial Intelligence opponent. Our hope was quickly deflated after learning that the number one Go grandmaster was beat by the Google AI Go program in 2017. More practice is in order and a good reminder that China is aggressively moving forward with AI.
Observation #8 – We all agreed that it is worth learning how to play Go, and reflect on how the Chinese think. Our hope is that by shedding light on this game, it will inspire both military and civilian leaders to consider how other cultures and nations strategically view the world and contribute to making the US a strong democracy.
Lieutenant Colonel Christopher P. Mulder, USAF, is a Senior Military Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. A graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, he is a command pilot and engaged in leadership and national security and defense issues.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.