China is Playing Go on the Global Board While not joining the table is not an option
It has been almost a decade since the onset of the 2008 crisis and the global arena is defined more and more by new characteristics that reflect changes in the number and intensity of interactions among all sorts of economic, political, military, spiritual actors, the obsolescence of International institutions, as well as the advances of science and disruptive technology.
The list of these changes is long, but a synthesis should definitely include: a global reality (quite aptly named globality), the entering of humankind into a new geological era (named Anthropocene due to the already substantial change inflicted on environment by human activities), the quest for a new architecture of international institutions (marked by the pressures upon the old-school institutions of Bretton Woods, like the IMF and the World Bank, and the emergence of new institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the New Development Bank), the criticism of globalization, with tones that vary from moderate to aggressive, manifested particularly in the developed countries which are most affected by the inequality phenomenon, the change of trends in international trade flows that present lower growth rates and a tendency to replace multilateralism and universalism with bilateralism and plurilateralism, the 4th industrial revolution (based on deep knowledge, connectography – the geography of interconnectedness, genetic editing, 3D printing, nanotechnology and new materials like graphene), changes in the interaction between individual and society (represented by disturbing realities such as post-privacy or post-truth politics).
All these changes will affect our lives in ways we have never experienced before (as Klaus Schwab said in his 2016 book on the 4th industrial revolution) but will also affect the global balance of power that has decidedly moved from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Concerning this shift, it is interesting to remark how one of the leading thinkers of the American establishment and the current world order (with reference to Zbignew Brzezinski) spoke in 1997 about the “The Grand Chessboard” in which United States aimed at maintaining its primacy during the whole 21st century while in 2016 he referred to a “Global Realignment” in which United States is no longer a “global imperial power” and it should forge some coalitions with Russia and China if it wants to be effective in Middle East and beyond.
This transition from the unipolar to the multipolar world is not the only process that characterizes the contemporary world economy. One can note, in fact, two parallel processes that evolve in two (almost) completely separate universes: a) one process refers to the interactions among states and organizations having states as members. This process is more and more based on realpolitik and the use of hard power, involving traditional diplomacy, cold war style actions combined with limited military moves, information and public relations manipulation; b) the second process is based on the advances of science and technology and is based on artificial intelligence and supercomputers, new materials and genetic editing, pointing to a world that is both promising and frightening. There is a risk that the two processes might intersect at one point and the achievements of the second process could be employed by the first one. An example of this possibility is represented by the so-called lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), weapons that can decide autonomously, based on artificial intelligence, to terminate human beings. Unfortunately such weapons do exist already and United Nations has started discussions on this subject since 2012, the latest meeting being in April 2016.
Given this global background one may compare the world economy with a game board where the big players are usually confronting each other and quite rarely cooperating with each other. The point we want to make here is that while the big players are playing with each other, they are playing different games. For the purpose of this analysis the big players considered are: United States, China, Russian Federation and European Union. The first three players are countries and therefore real actors, playing in different ways the old game of realpolitik. European Union is a synthetic actor (being an organization made of states that can represent the same interests or not), unable to play realpolitik as it does not have instruments of hard power.
United States is playing a game one can define as global governance (or rather an attempt to achieve global governance). Before and after the Second World War United States played this game with long term objectives, relatively high coherence and effectiveness. In the past two decades, the United States has more and shorter term objectives, less coherence and less effectiveness.
China is playing the game of go or Wei Qi, a game in which the objective is to surround more territory than your adversary. This approach is complex, long term, multi-dimensional and can be noted in the South China Sea. The fact that this game is 5,500 years old and has been part of the education of the aristocracy may give China an edge in the confrontation with the others.
The Russian Federation is playing chess and it is traditionally playing it very well. This also means a complex approach, long term goals, tactical sacrifices for strategic victories, analysis of options and alternatives and thinking ahead.
The least important global player (due to its lack of hard power), the European Union, is apparently playing something called “Comitology” which describes a vast bureaucratic process by which European Union legislation is decided upon by means of "comitology committees" which are chaired by the European Commission and involve consultations with Member States and other stakeholders. This process is very complex, slow and bureaucratic and it is completely non-operational when it comes to the split second decisions which may be needed in acute global moments (like acts of war).
This analogy with different types of games may be useful for estimating the chances of success in current and future negotiations or other interactions among the big players. One may say that China has significant potential from several points of view, but, while the game, the rules and strategies may shift, the stakes remain the same, and are higher than ever.