China's Rules of the Game

What an ancient pastime called "Go" teaches about Asia's island disputes.

The name of the game for the Chinese in the Pacific Island disputes is “Go,” which also happens to be an ancient Chinese board game that involves the surrounding and capture of enemy pieces and positions. White and black stones are placed on a 19-by-19 node grid of lines. A stone is captured when it is surrounded from all sides; it is defended when the enemy is diverted.

If we set the objective as the capture of islands without direct attack or invasion, we see the board-game stones replaced by surveillance vessels, fishing fleets and coast-guard frigates. Each side attempts to surround the island and claim dominion over that space by presence and patient stratagem.

The dispute is not about seizing the islands but about generating legitimacy through lasting superior presence—surrounding the islands. Once the game of “Go” is initiated it cannot be stopped until one side forfeits or loses. With each side’s national pride on the line, and the bets increasing, it appears unlikely that either side will give up. However, there doesn’t need to be any direct altercation, unless one side cheats.

Japan may cheat before the Chinese. At least, the Chinese may interpret their moves as cheating. This can be seen in its recent national purchase of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from a private Japanese citizen. China might eventually adjust the rule-set of a fixed game, in which case “Go” will no longer be the relevant analogous strategic framework. Already, China has made a move to nationalize the Parcels under the jurisdiction of the Hainan’s Sansha with similar occupational tactics that Japan has with Diaoyu/Senkaku.

If the game of “Go” loses its relevance as the appropriate analogy, then a new game will have to emerge, with new rules. Japan and the other nations seem to view it as a territorial game, more akin to “Risk,” where fast occupation is more important than encirclement and constriction.

China is cutting off Japan’s economic lifeline as well as interfering with waterborne channels, with one piece designed to counter the other. Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia do not appear to see this as “Go.” To them the conflict is more one of “Stop surrounding my islands, or else!”

In terms one can easily comprehend, the ultimate goal for China is that of undisputed long-term legitimacy. When one side dominates an island with its ships, it is supposed to be won without any further disputes. China is hoping to accomplish this with all islands within its famous Nine-Dotted Line claim around the South China Sea. As it grows out, it will consume them in this fashion. It is not a game of diplomacy but patient placement of relevant pieces. Japan may think it has taken Diaoyu/Senkaku, but China still has its pieces in place. When the opponent cannot completely rid another of eliminating encirclement, the threat has been neutralized. In China’s mind, the islands are theirs and they only have to keep their pieces in place and play to win. Eventually the target location will be completely overrun and surrounded.

The same fear of war emerged in the 1990s. But there are a few critical differences: First, the United States is backing all parties in an effort to contain China, but once again it is sending mixed signals that lack diplomatic focus, military strategy or political legitimacy. Second, the Japanese have nationalized the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Third, the new leaders of both China and Japan are more assertive. Japanese hardliners, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are pushing plans to build up a Japanese navy and military. 

Unfortunately, it appears too late for the United States to play the role of genuine arbiter, nor does it want to do so. China has openly condemned U.S. actions, but it seems more willing to brush them aside than it might have been in the past. 

In the Chinese mind, the winner is the one with the most pieces—which would be China. So far the rules of “Go” have allowed them to increase their presence while avoiding military conflict. But they also must respond to their own rioting people—upset over Japan’s insistence on playing the game of “Risk,” along with other Asian nations. Unfortunately, the game of “Go” may be too devious and simplistic for the regional or international players to respect.

Brett Daniel Shehadey is an analyst and writer. He is a regular contributor to Eurasia Review