So close are we to the US in terms of geography, history and popular culture that we remain ignorant of the history and culture of China, and often deeply suspicious of its contemporary intentions. This ignorance and suspicion, studied and reflexive, is often stoked by a similar mindset in the United States.
None of this is to suggest that the People’s Republic is a benevolent giant dispensing its largesse and proclaiming friendship simply out of the goodness of its heart. Likewise, with our American friends.
Proximity, historically and geographically, breeds familiarity. Having achieved independence in 1973, the British Empire is a recent memory, and the American superpower is what the name implies. We are rooted in, and deeply influenced by Anglo-American culture.
But today, there is another international player capturing our attention in terms of economics and geopolitics, though only slightly in terms of culture thus far. Even as the British were getting ready to shutter its High Commission, China and The Bahamas were ramping up diplomatic relations.
One of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of a sovereign Bahamas was the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1997 during the first administration of Hubert Ingraham and the FNM.
It was not exactly US President Richard Nixon going to China in reference to his 1972 visit to the People’s Republic launching a new era of strategic engagement between what are now the world’s leading powers. But it was in that vein of realpolitik, yielding significant results over the past 15 years and counting.
Though often cautious and conservative on various foreign policy matters, the launch of relations with China showcased Hubert Ingraham’s pragmatism. Given the role the Chinese ruling party plays in its system and the weight afforded certain personal relationships, the Chinese remain mindful of which party established relations.
The PLP and the administration of Sir Lynden Pindling were readying to send former Cabinet Minister Ervin Knowles to Taipei as resident ambassador to Taiwan. That would have been a major foreign policy blunder.
We would have been more isolated, and taken less seriously by various international partners and in various forums. Too put it less diplomatically, we would have looked foolish.
Which brings us to today. As China continues to “rise” or “emerge” or some other verb depending on one’s strategic calculus, much of the analysis is obscured by all manner of tunnel vision including near-sightedness. Many fail to adequately appreciate China’s thousands of years of civilization and its long-term vision.
China is not rising. It is rising again. China is not emerging. It is re-emerging. In 18 of the last 20 centuries, “…China produced a greater share of total world GDP than any Western society. As late as 1820, it produced over 30 percent of world GDP -- an amount exceeding the GDP of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States combined.”
Yet, there is something different about the China which re-emerged in the latter decades of the 20th century. It is moving past ideological and near-beyond geographic borders to secure its future and ambitions. China intends to secure its global position way beyond the South China Sea.
Many have written of the Chinese and Anglo-American worldviews as captured in the respective games of wei qi (pronounced “way chee”) commonly known in the West by its Japanese name go, and chess.
In his latest book, On China, veteran Chinese watcher and American foreign policy guru Henry Kissinger explores the Western and Sino approaches to international relations and the balance of global power as demonstrated in chess and wei qi. It is worth quoting Dr. Kissinger at length.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Of wei qi Kissinger writes: “Each player has 180 pieces, or stones, at his disposal, each of equal value with the others. The players take turns placing stones at any point on the board, building up positions of strength while working to encircle and capture the opponent’s stones.”
“Multiple contests take place simultaneously in different regions of the board. The balances of forces shifts incrementally with each move, as the players implement strategic plans and react to each other’s initiatives. At the end of a well-played game, the board is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength. The margin of advantage is often slim, and to the untrained eye, the identity of the winner is not always immediately obvious.”
The former Secretary of State notes of chess:
“Chess, on the other hand is always total victory. The purpose of the game is checkmate, to put the opposing king into a position where he cannot move without being destroyed. The vast majority of games end in total victory achieved by attrition or, more rarely, a dramatic, skillful manoeuvre. The only other possible outcome is a draw, meaning the abandonment of hope for victory by both parties.”
Kissinger then compares to two game theories:
“If chess is about decisive battle wei qi is about the protracted campaign. The chess player aims for total victory. The wei qi player seeks relative advantage. In chess, the player always has the capability of the adversary in front of him; all the pieces are always fully deployed.
“The we qi player needs to access not only the pieces on the board but the reinforcements the adversary is in a position to deploy. Chess teaches the Clausewitzian [Prussian military strategist Carl Phillip von Clausewitz] concepts of center of gravity” and the “decisive point” --- the game usually begins as a struggle for the center of the board.
“Wei qi teaches the art of strategic encirclement. Where the skillful chess player aims to eliminate his opponent’s pieces in a series of head-on clashes, a talented we qi player moves into “empty” spaces on the board, gradually mitigating the strategic potential of his opponent’s pieces. Chess produces single-mindedness; we qi generates strategic flexibility.”
In a March 2012 edition, the venerable magazine The Economist reviewed the Chinese presence in the Caribbean, especially in The Bahamas, in an article entitled, “A Chinese beachhead?”
The article concluded:
“Yet it is hard to see the Caribbean becoming a Chinese beachhead on America’s doorstep—a mirror image of Taiwan. Despite the presence of small ethnic Chinese communities in many islands, the Caribbean continues to look north. China keeps promising a stream of tourists, but few come. Baha Mar will be managed by Hyatt and other American companies.”
The article and other observers are missing the point. China may not be looking for one big thing from The Bahamas – such as involvement in the financial services and oil sectors – or in the region.
By moving into many “empty spaces” in the region and around the world, it is gaining various strategic advantages while others are looking for the big Chinese play. The game is more advanced than many realize.
Reportedly, a Wikileaks cable from the US Embassy in The Bahamas queried whether the intense interest of China in The Bahamas had something to do with the ongoing liberalization and opening up of Cuba. If this analysis is meant to be taken seriously, it also misses the point.
The Chinese don’t have to come through The Bahamas to get to Cuba. China is already in Cuba. And, it is strategically encircling other powers through economic, political and military influence and alliances, occupying “empty spaces” left open by those who are missing the medium- and longer-term strategy.
For those interested in understanding the multiple threads of Chinese civilization, and its approach to international relations, one may study Mandarin at the new Confucius Institute at the College of The Bahamas as well as study the manner in which China courts allies through gifts large and small, diplomatic visits and flawless hospitality. And, is anybody up to a game of wei qi?