China’s game plan
Never mind Sun Tzu’s masterful treatise, “The Art of War.” Likewise Marxist-Leninist thought, and the more picturesque “cabbage-” and “salami-slicing” strategy of Beijing recently highlighted in the local and international media. China’s strategic plans in the South China-Philippine Sea are best understood in the immensely popular, 2,500-year-old Chinese game “go.”
Just as the Western (military) mind is largely reflected in the more confrontational, direct, decisive, and no-holds-barred character of chess, go faithfully captures the calibrated dynamics and essence of Chinese tactics and strategy in the disputed maritime arena: The object of go is to gain more territory than your adversary, while the aim of chess is to defeat your rival by mating or capturing his king. The outcome of both games are determined by superior positioning of pieces. While chess is characterized by a single battlefield (revolving around the control of the center) and the fluidity and speed of major pieces on the board, go is a slower and more deliberate buildup and superior positioning of pieces over a multiple-battleground board. It is therefore the progressive denial of territory to your adversary that spells ultimate victory.
Furthermore, unlike chess where bold, high-risk maneuvers may quickly bring about brilliant victories, go is a low-risk, incremental undertaking involving the consolidation of gains, focusing its attack on the enemy’s weak points and group, and avoiding their strong positions.
Finally, the philosophy behind chess is clear, absolute victory for the winner, while go favors patient, long-term relative gain over the rewards of total victory and annihilation.
It is the perfect recipe for winning slowly, albeit unspectacularly.
Applying our understanding of go to the flashpoints in Asia is uncannily revealing: Since 1949, changing the territorial and maritime configuration of China (to its advantage) ranks in Beijing’s short list of state and power expansion.
First was China’s annexation of weakly-defended, sparsely-populated Xinjiang and Tibet, a low-risk invasion which more than doubled its land mass. Then incrementally followed footholds in the Akai Chin area (formerly parts of Jammu-Kashmir states) during 1954-1961. Bear in mind that China’s Himalayan border with India is the longest contested perimeter in the world.
The seaward movements began with Beijing’s consolidation of control of Xisha islands (Paracel islands) in 1974, Johnson Reef in 1988, Mischief Reef (west of Palawan) in 1995, and Scarborough Shoal (Panatag) west of Zambales. Beijing’s announcement last week that it would take over sometime this year the Philippine-occupied Pagasa island (the second biggest island in the Spratlys) is a continuation of that accretion process. That declaration was meant to scare off the Filipino presence with a minimum of firepower.
Historically, China has viewed the South China Sea as its own private lake and has drawn a controversial “nine-dash-line” to mark its maritime boundary. Citing ancient maps and artifacts found in the waters and islands in the disputed
areas as proof of sovereignty and ownership (akin to a man pissing on a tree and claiming that it’s his by right), China now seeks to apply domestic law and control over the entire region of vital resources and strategic straits and waterways. Currently it lacks the military capability, specifically a blue-water navy, to do it. But when it achieves that, expect the big dragon to flex its muscles.
Beijing’s recent announcement that it is building four new aircraft carriers is no idle threat. With such a navy to back it, a new variant in gunboat diplomacy will have begun.
The stakes are very high. Consider the following:
• China, the United States and Japan constitute the three biggest economies in the world, and they rely heavily on the ocean for the transport of goods essential to maintaining their power, global agenda and way of life.
• Ninety percent of maritime traffic between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean pass through the Straits of Malacca. It is a critical lifeline for many countries, such as Japan, which imports 80 percent of its oil from the Middle East. In hostile hands, it is a key geographic “choke-point,” capable of seriously harming world trade. The narrow, 550-mile-long Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia lie not far below the “nine-dash line.” In this context, China’s interests go far beyond the untapped natural resources in what it considers its own territorial waters.
Beijing is again employing the principle of go’s tactical positioning, to gain a much-coveted strategic advantage in the entire region. Incidentally, the tactic is also a handy instrument to manage domestic dissent, under the guise of patriotism and nationalism
• Once China develops a true blue-water navy capable of projecting its power from afar, the transport of goods via the South China-Philippine Sea will be (indirectly) under its effective control. Even the right of innocent passage will operate under the shadow of the Chinese flag. This does not mean China, a giant entrepreneurial animal, will undermine its economic underbelly by impeding navigation and world commerce. Most likely it’s a matter of self-esteem and national hubris: Gaining strategic control of what it has always considered its watery playground will solidify China’s superpower status, which right now is at a self-conscious, awkward stage. Hopefully, Beijing will be content with the swagger and bragging rights that go with great power. That is the optimistic, “half-full-glass” assessment.
It is evident that the Philippine government’s bold move to elevate its territorial dispute with China to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea instead of agreeing to a bilateral solution advocated by Beijing caught the latter by surprise. If that United Nations body rules in Manila’s favor, will China, a UN member in relatively good standing, respect its decision? Or will it behave like a rogue state and treat the international court’s ruling with benign indifference, if not outright arrogance? Only time will tell.
Narciso M. Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) lived in Beijing in 1978-1981 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency. He is a former diplomat with an MA in international and strategic affairs from Georgetown University.
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