What is the core of Chinese strategy in the South China Sea dispute?
The Western eye is particularly ill trained to see through Beijing’s strategic moves. It tends to view the game nations play in terms of chess, but as keen observers of Chinese strategy such as Henry Kissinger and David Lai have noted, China plays weiqi in much of its foreign relations.
The oldest and most prominent board game in China, weiqi is, as its very name tells us, a game of encirclement. By contrast, chess is a game of checkmate. In chess, the game pieces, such as kings, queens, or pawns, vary vastly in their inherent value and power, which are determined by their definitional characters. In weiqi, there are no kings, queens, or pawns, only identical stones that derive their powers from where they are located in the larger configuration of the pieces. If chess is about the accumulation and attrition of physical power, weiqi is about the seizure and maneuvering of strategic positions.
Observers using the chess lens will find China’s moves in the South China Sea dispute largely trivial. All the pawns are pushed forward, but there is little movement of the other, more powerful, figures. Perhaps the most powerful figure on the board is an underground base for nuclear submarines at Yulin on the southern coast of Hainan Island. However, this base is not located in the disputed areas. The main forces involved in the dispute are rarely the military, but mostly fishing boats and lightly armed government vessels. And the central objects of the contest are tiny, barren, oftentimes submerged, rocks.
Apparently looking at this game from a chess-like perspective, a very senior diplomat said, “great powers don’t go to war over rocks,” and a leading analyst concluded, “these tensions between a rising power and its neighbors are natural and constitute no major danger to the global balance of power, nor even to the normal functioning of the international system.”
But in the eyes of the weiqi player, what China has done in the South China Sea is a classic example of how to play the game masterly. The ultimate goal is to gain control of the region. The campaign to achieve this goal does not rely on battles involving powerful units as in chess, but on creeping expansion. It is a protracted undertaking that is played out in decades. The underlying logic is to gradually shift the propensity of things in favor of Chinese dominance by unobtrusively maneuvering the strategic configuration of the region.
This strategy requires a number of imperatives, each of which is built on top of another. The first imperative is to avoid military battles as much as possible; clashes can be initiated only to exploit an existing favorable situation. The second imperative is to control the most strategic positions in the sea; if not already in possession, these positions must be seized stealthily if possible and in a limited conflict if necessary. The third imperative is to develop these positions into strong points of control, robust hubs of logistics, and effective bases of power projection.
The six decades of the PRC’s expansion in the South China Sea since the 1950s have neatly followed these imperatives.
While China was ready to engage in military confrontation, it usually avoided using large armed battles to enlarge its sphere of control. Of the numerous attempts by Beijing to snatch new possessions during these six decades, only two involved armed military clashes. The first of the two took place in January 1974 against South Vietnam and concluded with China seizing the western half of the Paracel Islands, the Crescent Group, from the former. The second was a far smaller—but no less bloody—skirmish against unified Vietnam at Johnson South Reef in April 1988.
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