Xi’s Baduk diplomacy

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Xi’s Baduk diplomacy

Chinese ambassador to South Korea Qiu Guohong recently invited Korea’s professional go champion Cho Hun-hyeon for a friendly match of go, known as baduk in Korean. He has a passion as well as a certain level of talent for the game, having come in second at a Chinese foreign ministry competition. Qiu says he is grateful to Korea because the country warmly embraced Rui Naiwei, a Chinese-born player and the first female to have won major go titles, when she and her husband had nowhere to go and allowed her to compete in formerly male-dominated competitions.

Qiu had always wanted to receive lessons from Cho, who brought Rui to Korea to help her continue to play in the professional field. The match was not a real competition as Qiu, an amateur, had a handicap of six stones to play against Cho, a player at the highest level. It was really the Chinese envoy’s way to reach out to Koreans by building up friends in a new area of society.

Cho observed that Qiu excelled in his speed and played aggressively. His playing style could have won approval from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Around this time last year, Xi visited Peking University and watched students compete in a go match. He pointed out one student who played aggressively and jokingly said China’s diplomats could learn a thing or two from that student.

Xi’s go skills are unknown. But his love for the ancient pastime is evident. When President Park Geun-hye visited China in 2013, he introduced Chinese go player Chang Hao to her. Peking University made arrangements for Xi to watch its students play when he paid a visit to the elite university.

One of Xi’s closest friends is Nie Weiping, the first Chinese to win an international go title. Nie went to the same middle school as the president.

Xi is known to have learned to play go after he graduated from university. It was during his first job working as an aide to the powerful military leader Geng Biao, who was his father Xi Zhongxun’s former subordinate. Geng introduced Xi to the world of go to train his eye and mind to cope with life’s many complexities and challenges. The board game has lasted over 2,000 years, enjoyed by emperors, generals, politicians and scholars to discipline themselves and learn the wisdom of life. Xi recalled that the game taught him how to govern.

That may be why Xi’s foreign policy can be compared to a game of go. Against U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia policy, he laid down a game-changing stone called the One Belt, One Road initiative. The U.S. was startled to see how far China has ascended on the global and regional stage while it was preoccupied with combating a financial meltdown from the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008 and the mess in the Middle East. The “pivot” to Asia, Beijing believed, was an excuse to contain Chinese influence in the geopolitical environment.

Against Washington’s gambit, Xi unwaveringly stuck to the masters’ golden rule of the ancient sport: “Strengthen to the left if you want to attack on the right.” You lose a one-on-one game if you are entirely defensive against the player across from you. China wants to avoid a direct clash with the United States. If the U.S. moves into Asia, China will take its money and power elsewhere. As the U.S. moved to surround and close in on China in Asia, the latter confronted it with a startling and unimaginable plan: to create a new Silk Road economic and trade belt that would cut across central Asia and Russia to connect the continent with Europe on land and cross Southeast Asia and India to reach Africa via the sea. If the U.S. turns regional, China will go global.

Wei-chi is the Chinese name for go, which means surrounding the stones. It is compared to the Western board game of chess, in which the ultimate goal is to capture the king. But in the game of go, capture is less important than possessing as much territory as possible without having to wipe out your opponent. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, an expert on China, advised American politicians to understand the Chinese game of weiqi, which is basically a game of strategic encirclement. It is unlike the Western game of chess, which is about victory or defeat when somebody wins with all the pieces in front of him or her at all times, so you can calculate your risk. With go, the pieces are not all on the board. The opponent takes the pieces to the vacant space and is capable of introducing new pieces to change the game in his or her own favor. Western media and experts are skeptical about the New Silk Road design, citing poverty and political instabilities and insecurity in central and Southeast Asia. But from China’s go-influenced perspective, it is heading for the empty spaces on the board.

Western military tactics focus on defending and protecting capitals, populated cities, or key economic areas. But in go, you start from the periphery and work your way to the center. Mao Zedong was able to defeat his political rivals and gain power through his go-based strategy of targeting the periphery of the corners and then the sides in the early stages of the civil war, according to Scott Boorman’s book “The Protracted Game.” Xi’s One Belt, One Road design incorporates the weiqi theory that victory is assured if three corners are occupied. China could end up as the winner if it can connect Asia, Europe and Africa. The wei-chi board is also a game of attrition. The Chinese are experts in standing the test of time. To understand Chinese diplomatic tactics, one should first start learning the game and theory of baduk.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 3, Page 28

*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.

by You Sang-chul

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