[OPINION] China’s game of Go

Niño Vince P. Suelto
[OPINION] China’s game of Go

Illustration by DR Castuciano

'We need to place ourselves in the shoes of our opponent by examining its history, culture, education, and even its order to understand its motivations and shed light on its future actions'

“To secure ourself against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the  enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” – Sun Tzu  

I read about the game of Go in high school while reading a commentary on the Art of War that a classmate of mine had lent me. I wasn’t able to actually play it until recently, during the start of the pandemic when I found out it was available online.  

Historically, it originated in China, and was known as Wei Qi or “To Surround.” At present, this game is very popular in East Asian countries such as China (Wei Qi), Japan (I-go), and Korea (Baduk). It is also popular in the United States under the American Go Association and Europe under the European Go Federation. It was only recently, in 2006, that Filipino enthusiasts formed the Philippine Go Association.  

For those unfamiliar, the object of the game is to gain as much control over 361 territorial points called “liberties” on a 19×19 board called a goban by placing one’s designated stones on  these “liberties.” Unlike chess, the goal is not to eliminate the opponent’s highest value piece or annihilate all his pieces, but rather to gain the most territory with the least amount of resources.  

There are four general ways to end a game in Go. First, Black or White takes control of majority or all of the points on the board. Second, Black or White surpasses or reduces the points of the other by capturing isolated groups of stones despite the respective opponent’s dominant control of the board’s territory. Third, either Black or White resigns. Fourth, Black or White runs  out of time without making a move.  

China has been employing the basic principle of this game in its bid to dominate the Asia Pacific region and surpass its hegemonic rival the United States. The term “hybrid warfare” or “gray zone” has been floating around in traditional and social media as well as the military academe. Simply put, it is a type of strategy that utilizes kinetic operations and subversive efforts  to undermine the opponent over time without risk of open retaliation.

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However, it is not a novel theory, as various forms of it has been utilized since civilization began. What is new in the 21st century are the arenas where they are conducted, such as technology, cyber security, social media, economy, and most recently vaccine diplomacy. These new arenas are simply additional points in the goban of the 21st century. 

The game of Go played by China is no longer limited to physical territory but other levels as well. The artificial islands it occupies in the West Philippine Sea is merely a quadrant or corner in the board. Every majority share of a corporation it purchases in another country is another stone in another corner of the board. Every technology it pilfers or buys from another country is also another moyo or “stone framework” in another corner of the board. Every Confucius Institute it establishes in an opponent’s local university is a sente or a seed of “initiative” that anchors its future designs to overwhelm the board. And every loan it offers is a “tiger’s mouth” waiting to atari or checkmate a gullible opponent into a ladder of unconscionable interest.  

In the perspective of China under the rule of the Communist Party, there is only ONE ROAD, ONE BELT, and ONE STONE COLOR that will occupy all 361 liberties of the goban.  

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The situation is not, however, hopeless, as long as we internalize and operationalize the four general endgame situations. The following statements are not a step by step guide to defeat China, but rather guidelines or frameworks in going about the question of defeating China.  

First, if China seeks to gain all 361 liberties of the board, its opponents must endeavor to mitigate its gains by challenging and blocking it at every advantageous liberty point so as to restore an equilibrium in the balance of power on the board. For me, the hidden object of Go is not domination of the board but rather striking the balance between black and white, at 180.5  points each, respectively.  

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Second, if China seeks to “outpoint” its opponents by capturing their isolated stone groups, avoid employing an aggressively greedy disposition by overextending your territory and rendering it more vulnerable. It is better to employ a “peep” move. A “peep” is a type of move where you place your stone directly next to an empty point that would have connected two solid groups of the enemy’s stones. This will entice or provoke your opponent without immediately endangering your stone. The same can be employed in dealing with China. Instead of directly confronting China, one must appear to threaten its interests without inviting the wrath of its  might. Prudence and Subtlety are the muses of victory in Go.  

Third, the best way for China to win is to compel its opponents to resign or surrender. The same is also applicable to China’s opponents. As Clausewitz aptly said, “War is a trial of moral and physical forces by means of the latter…. In the last analysis, it is at moral, not physical strength that all military action is directed…. Moral factors, then, are the ultimate determinants  in war.”

To an extent, Sun Tzu complements this by saying, “To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

In synthesis, one must strike at the locus of the enemy’s intent so as to divest him of purpose to fight and ultimately his will to resist.  

Lastly, the dirtiest and cheapest way – but equally potent – to end Go is to deprive the opponent of time. This may be done either by carefully blitzing or ending the turn quickly so as to overwhelm and shorten the opponent’s time to deliberate his next move. An equal blunder would be failing to act at the most opportune time. Miyamoto Musashi in Go Rin no Sho (Book of  the Five Rings) once said, “There is timing in everything. Timing in strategy cannot be mastered without a great deal of practice.”  

To illustrate, there is a Japanese anecdote about the three unifiers of Japan. Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa were faced with the problem of how to make a bird sing. Nobunaga says, 

“If the bird doesn’t not sing, kill the bird.” Hideyoshi says, “If the bird doesn’t sing, make it sing.” Finally, Tokugawa says,” If the bird doesn’t sing, wait for it to sing.” 

We need to place ourselves in the shoes of our opponent by examining its history, culture, education, and even its games such as Go or Wei Qi, in order to understand its motivations and shed light on its future actions. As the great strategist from the State of Wu said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself  but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” –

Niño Vince P. Suelto is a fourth year law student at San Beda College Alabang School of Law. He obtained his bachelors degree in Political Science at the Ateneo de Manila University.

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