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China has Weiqi, India has Chess – Read how these board games also shape respective battle strategies

Two of their ancient popular board games are forming the basis of the modern-day war strategies of India and China as the two nations face off along the Tibetan border.


There is a common notion that the Chinese Army is invincible even though they have not won any wars recently. Welcome to the Chinese Art of War.

China has mastered the art of unconventional warfare in which the opponent gets psyched out even before the first bullet is fired. The art cannot be explained, it can be only be experienced through a board game.

The Chinese board game called wéiqí or ɦʉi gi 圍棋 or Go which is known as the game of encirclement, the core philosophy of Chinese military tactics. In wéiqí, the goal is to surround and capture the enemy and dominate the board through a series of complex, deceptive moves stretching out often for an entire day. 

Chinese strategy

In Wéiqí or Go, the two players take turns to place white or black stones on a square grid with 19 intersecting points along each axis.

It is said the Sun Tzu (writer of The Art of War) perfected the game of Go in a real-war situation and defeated Kingdom of Chu, with a numerically inferior army. The same tactics were adopted by the Vietnamese Congs in 1960’s and 70’s against the US forces.

In the Art of War, Tsu shows how in Go you have to bring alacrity, surprise, deception and swift moves to create opportunities to secure political motives just like Chinese military strategy.

Indian strategy

In India and much of the western world, the military strategy is guided by another ancient popular board game – Chess. Chess is a popular Indian board game which originated in the Gupta empire and was popularised in the west via Persia. It has roots in the ancient Indian dice game of chausar.

Chess is a zero-sum game where the player has to kill or get killed. In conventional war the prevailing dictum is that brute force can only win the battle. Therefore, the best approach is to neutralise the opposition through a frontal attack attained within a limited time. 

The objective of chess is to deliver a quick, killer blow by capturing or forcing the surrender of the King by eliminating its pieces. The Western civilization had always based their strategy on such an objective. On the other hand, Go doesn’t generate a quick, straightforward winner. The player who ends up with the most territories at the end is considered the winner.

Psychological warfare

As per wéiqí, the best approach is to psyche out the opponent into believing that you are invincible. The idea is that the opponent will start giving in once encircled and there will be no need for a full-blown frontal attack.

China invested heavily to acquire companies or supply chains across the world. In the 1990s, the Chinese also started to use its global clout to buy out or steal industrial and technological properties of other countries. All of this was controlled by the state even when it was fronted by private companies or individual investors.

 Balance of Power

Chess is focused on positioning while Go prioritizes net balance calculations as players always lose something to gain something. In selecting where to play in Go you have to look at the balance between attack and defence, playing close or loose, territory or influence. Like in Go, Chinese military have the capacity to plan long term territorial expansion often a century in advance.

The Chinese have strategically placed their stones in Asia, Africa, America and Europe. The four continents represent the four quadrants of China’s modern wéiqí strategy. The strategic stone placement over the past 50 years has helped China secure political clout, access to markets and raw materials, public support and the notion of invincibility.

Tibet

The number of legal board positions in Go has been calculated to be approximately 2 × 10170, (“Combinatorics of Go”, Tromp and Farneback) greater than the number of atoms in the universe. Compared to that chess has finite moves. In chess, there are 20 possible opening moves compared to 361 for Go. Chess prioritizes mobility and relative strength while Go values territory and positional influence.

The Chinese strategy on Tibet is exemplified by the long drawn, calculated moves in Go. The plan is to legitimize the forceful annexation of Tibet by swaying international opinion in its favour. China has long pressurised the US administration and dissuaded them from taking any unilateral action that alters the perceived status quo. It has skilfully used its economic, military and diplomatic levers to curb any possible dissension or freedom movement in Tibet.

The international position in Tibet is that China should not use too much force to curb dissent. This is a Chinese victory as this is a tacit acceptance that Tibet is a part of China.

Last but not the least, wéiqí embodies China’s top down, ruthless communist dictatorship. Chess has different pieces with different capabilities while in Go all the stones are of equal value. This is similar to the assumed “equality” espoused by the Communist Party of China (CCP). In Go, some equals have to die to give power to other equals, which is how the modern day CCP conducts itself.

Note: Article co-authored by Saptorshee Kanto Chakraborty.

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Santanu Chakraborty
Santanu is an award-winning equity and debt market reporter and has worked with Bloomberg News, Dow Jones Newswires and Warburg-Reorg for the past 12 years. He has been writing compelling stories about Indian markets simplifying complexities and providing clarity where there is uncertainty.

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