Not Chess, play Go with China

Living with a dominant China is the future. Let’s acknowledge and plan for it.

By Sai Anand Balu

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Published: Tue 15 Dec 2020, 9:56 PM

Last week, China planted its flag on the moon. While not as significant as the US flag planted by Neil Armstrong, it shows China has risen and arrived not just in this world but in other worlds. China’s Mars mission is called Tianwen, which translates to ‘heavenly questions’. While China is flying high and asking the big questions, the more mundane earthly question is when would the Free World recognise China as the dominant superpower? The inability of the leaders of Western countries, especially the US, and Eastern countries, particularly India, to acknowledge the fact that China is an economic and military superpower now and will be the dominant superpower in a decade, is a delusional attempt to keep the pride and thus eat humble pie later.

China’s growth in the past three decades has been phenomenal. The Chinese government has been hyper competitive in every aspect of its growth, never skipping, never leapfrogging the pains involved in growing into the country it has become — an industrial and then a services superpower (unlike India, which provides lip service to industrial production with cute slogans like Make in India). Beijing’s unspoken China First policy has been a stunning success, a policy that has made China extend its influence from the Philippines to Kenya within a decade. It has surrounded its main rival in the region, India, with both economic incentives (building/leasing ports) and strategic partnership with Pakistan. The Belt and Road Initiative will bring China more influence across Asia and Europe. While the America First policy has turned into an America Alone policy, China First policy has made China the de facto leader across the world — not a respected or a trusted leader, but a leader nevertheless.

The world now needs to plan for China being the dominant superpower and plan on how to help the US cope with this change. And yes, the US needs all the help. It has never been a country that knows how to work with an equal nation, let alone work with a dominant superpower. Expecting the US to act like Britain after WWII is a dangerous gamble. Where are the Kissingers of foreign policy?

One idea that got stuck in my head after reading Kissinger’s On China, is that China plays the game Go, while the rest of the world thinks China plays chess. Go is all about having a slightly upper hand by surrounding your opponent rather than the “check-mate, and your king is dead” endgame of chess. So, how can the world help the US and the US help the world in a dominant China-centric world? Start by playing Go.

India, US, Australia and Japan have become the Quad in the Indo-China region to contain China. While much has been made about the military exercises, it is neither strategic nor tactical. The weakest link but with the strongest potential in the Quad is India. But for India to play a strategic role, it has to have a strategic national interest that needs to be supported by the world. India needs to resolve its border issues with China and Pakistan. It also needs to play a positive role in the Belt and Road Initiative to remove if that would mean China not blocking its plans for a permanent membership in the expanded UN Security Council. A peaceful India can become the industry to the world, and thus reduce the world (especially Australia’s) dependence on China. With it, the Quad can cover the east and south of China both militarily and economically.

The world should encourage the US to drop its current implementation of America First policy. In fact, the world should demand the exact opposite. I am reminded of my local town college basketball rivalry between UNC and Duke. As a UNC alum and a fan, the right answer to the question: “Which team are you supporting?” is always “the team that is playing against Duke”. It does not matter which team it is — the opposing team of Duke gets my support! That should be the world’s and America’s policy when it comes to China. Build countries up, create economic and strategic alliances, put pressure on Germany and France to allow Turkey to join the EU if Turkey is willing to give up on Belt and Road.

Living with a dominant China is the future. Let’s acknowledge and plan for it. Let’s get better at playing Go.

Balu works in the field of research informatics. He is a research scholar based in North Carolina in the United States

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