China has been playing Go, not chess. India needs to learn the game | Opinion
Chinese strategist Sun Tzu’s most famous aphorism goes something like this. He said, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”
Strategists learn about adversaries by observing their actions and statements, interpreting their behaviour, and studying their leaders. But the more astute understand the enemies’ mindset by studying their culture.
Leaders and tactics may change, but strategies and doctrines are embedded in the culture and mindset of a nation and are, therefore, far better predictors of their actions. Both China and India have a rich culture and several texts that explain respective mindsets but an easier way to explain the difference is to study the strategy games of the two nations.
Chess originated in India. The game is played by two players on a board of 64 squares with 16 white and black pieces each. The opponents start the game with all their pieces arraigned against each other and each player moves alternatively. The pieces have powers in hierarchical order with the queen being most powerful. All pieces change their positions continuously during the game.
As those familiar with chess know, it is a game of manoeuvre that has one centre of gravity — the king; and the objective is to capture or “kill” the opponent’s king. The loss of rest of the pieces or their positions at the end of the game is immaterial.
The Chinese strategy game, however, is “igo” — commonly known as “Go”. It is played on a much larger board that has 19x19 sides resulting in 361 points compared to the 64 squares in Chess. In Go, the stones are positioned on the “intersections” of the squares to deny “liberty” to the opponent’s stones. Go also has white and black pieces called stones, but that is where the similarity with chess ends. The objective of Go is not to capture any single piece; instead, it is to surround a larger total area of the board with one’s stones before the opponent. As the game progresses, the players position stones on the board to map out formations and potential territories. Contests between opposing formations result in the expansion, reduction, or capture and loss of stones. The winner is decided by counting each player’s surrounded territory along with captured stones.
China has been playing Go, not chess with India. It has been playing the game on a multi-dimensional canvas much larger than the Indian landmass and across several spectrums, ranging from the military to the economic “intersections” blocking India’s “liberty” or manoeuvrability over a long period. It has inveigled every neighbour of India by coaxing, cajoling, or enticing them into its camp. It has infiltrated into India’s economic, infrastructure, health care, communication and technological value chain so inextricably that, contrary to silly calls for boycotting Chinese goods, India cannot meaningfully disengage its dependence on China.
While there is no doubting the valour of our army, the cost of militarily confronting an adversary whose economy is over five times as large as ours and whose defence budget is four times ours would be horrendous in human and economic terms for decades to come. This is particularly so because China has turned India’s northern and western neighbours into its surrogate pincers tying down a large part of our military assets and strategic mindshare. If India does consider the military option, it will have to factor in China’s overwhelming superiority in the Ladakh region specifically, and in electronic warfare, cyberwar, drones, missiles and the nuclear arsenal of the People’s Liberation Army generally.
The word “igo” in Mandarin literally means to encircle, and that is China’s strategy with a combination of the “String of Pearls” (which refers to the sea line communications from China to the Horn of Africa through strategic choke points and maritime centres in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Somalia) along India’s coastline and the Belt and Road initiative in the North. Nepal, Bhutan and now Ladakh are additional “stones” being placed to constrict India’s manoeuvrability from every direction.
Instead of treating these episodes as singular events, India must join the dots to appreciate the Chinese game plan and design a counter-strategy along three thrust lines.
First, an encirclement cannot be broken only from inside. Instead, India must expand the ‘board” by cooperating with countries such as Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam which are increasingly threatened by China’s hegemonistic moves. Simultaneously, it must build pressure from within the encirclement by rapprochement with immediate neighbours such as Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. This requires us to think like a Go player and appreciate that unlike chess, the stones in Go don’t have relative power. India has far greater historical synergies with every one of our neighbours including Pakistan, than China does. Each stone, or in this case, country, is important, regardless of its physical or economic size. We need to value them as equal partners in the struggle against Chinese hegemony. Second, India must recast its national security strategy horizons to decades instead of election cycles. If a government’s image is interlocked with tactical timelines, then, by definition, strategy will suffer because tactical and strategic goals are usually at cross purposes. Divorcing national security from politics will enable long-term indigenous capacity-building and strengthening external alliances.
Last, and most important, India needs to consolidate its internal critical mass. The country is facing multiple challenges on several fronts, most seriously the economy. Political power, as Mao said, may grow from a barrel of a gun, but national power emanates from a strong and vibrant economy, which, in turn, requires internal peace, cooperation, and harmony to inspire customer and investor confidence. Unless those conditions are achieved, no country can aspire to be a regional power or thwart attacks on its sovereignty.