return to ICG Spaces home    ICG Risk Blog    discussions    newsletters    login    

ICG Risk Blog - [ Testing and strategic encirclement versus force on force, bluffing and risk-taking ]

Testing and strategic encirclement versus force on force, bluffing and risk-taking


Understanding China's regional and global diplomatic initiative, "peaceful rise" or heping jueqi, demands a mindset very different from a Western view that values the centrality of the application of force. David Lai believes that the strength of current US thinking is also the root of its weakness -- a disproportionate lack of sophisticated skill on strategy and stratagem. Lai believes that the game of go resembles the Chinese way of war and diplomacy, playing out Sun Tzu’s strategic vision, and can serve as a window into Chinese strategic thinking.

Originally called weiqi (pronounced wei ch’i); literally, encircling territory, go starts with the game board completely open as two players compete for space (territory), with the one acquiring more the winner. The game board was conceived as the earth (when the earth was presumed flat and square), square representing stability, its four corners representing the seasons and the cyclical nature of time, round stone pieces of equal power representing Sun Tzu’s metaphor of stones as rolling boulders creating shi, the shape of the "stone engagements on the board is like the flow of water."

Players secure territory by encircling more space on the board, which leads to "invasion, engagement, confrontation, and war fighting" in multiple campaigns across multiple battlefronts. Go becomes more complicated as the players add more stones, unlike chess which reduces its number of players as the game progresses:

This Chinese way of war and diplomacy is in striking difference to the Western way of war from ancient Greece to the United States today. In the Western tradition, there is a heavy emphasis on the use of force; the art of war is largely limited to the battlefields; and the way to fight is force on force. As one observer puts it, "the Greeks developed what has been called the Western way of war - a collision of soldiers on an open plain in a magnificent display of courage, skill, physical prowess, honor, and fair play, and a concomitant repugnance for decoy, ambush, sneak attacks, and the involvement of noncombatants."

The Annual Report On The Military Power Of The People’s Republic Of China July 2003 notes that shi, the existing "strategic configuration of power" or "the alignment of forces," has no Western equivalent in its ability to "preserve national independence and enable China to build "momentum" in its effort to increase national power." Sun Tzu described shi has having:

  • Zheng, the normal manner of doing things, the regular order of battle, known to the enemy.
  • Qi, the extraordinary, variable manner of doing things, unknown and unexpected by the enemy
  • Creation of an "overwhelming force with irresistible unleashing power"
  • Development of a favorable situation with great potential to achieve political objectives
  • Taking and maintaining the initiative, making the enemy confirm

Lai uses a go game of two accomplished players to demonstrate Chinese thinking and contrasts that with US thinking in American football, poker, chess, and boxing, all of which share a more immediate cause and effect and a force application mindset. For example:


  • Power-based competition via a hierarchy of rank of pieces of different weight
  • Balance of military power in conflict situation
  • Outcome can be predicted by counting pieces and their strength on the board


  • Risk-taking and bluffing to exert control over dealt cards which players have no control
  • Typical foreign policy approaches are short-term threats and ultimatums

American football

  • Hard force on force
  • clear division between offense and defense

Whereas in go

  • Pieces have same tangible power, but have an intangible power based on the "near-infinite combinations and alternative ways of engagement"
  • Stones work "collectively and always in concert with one another to fight battles"
  • Outcome is difficult to predict with a casual look at individual pieces
  • Long-term strategies that test rather than bluff are favored
  • Players set up negotiations but do not utilize risky ultimatums
  • There is no clear-cut frontline as defense or offense is relative

This slim monograph is worth a read as our Western concepts limit us in dealing with the patient global diplomacy of China's Peaceful Rise.

Part one

"Learning From the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China's Strategic Concept, Shi"
David Lai
U.S. Army War College, May 2004

'Peaceful rising' seeks to allay 'China threat'
By Bruce Klingner
Asia Times
Mar 12, 2004

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  


  discuss this article

<<  |  April 2020  |  >>
view our rss feed