(Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)

A planetary Go game:

Most Western geopolitical observers seem to be unable to see the planetary scale strategy that China deploys in the Antarctic (Alexander B. Gray, “China’s Next Geopolitical Goal: Dominate Antarctica”, The National Interest, 20 March 2021). The roots of this “very Great Game” run deep in Chinese history and strategic culture. They do as well in the current Chinese development strategy (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road, from Oil Wells to the Moon… and Beyond”, The Red Team Analysis Society, July 6, 2015).

A Go Game from Pole to Pole

In order to understand the scale of this mammoth geopolitical undertaking, we have to keep in mind that China’s strategic style is deeply different from the Western one. As Scott Boorman establishes in 1971 and David Lai in 2002, the main principle of China’s strategy is not domination through the direct exercise of force (Scott Boorman, The Protracted Game – A Wei’Chi interpretation of the Maoist Revolutionary Strategy, 1969, David Lai, « Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept Shi’ », 2004, GlobalSecurity.org). Indeed, force is combined with indirect mastery and a “surround and conquer” approach.

This approach is combined with “shih”. That notion encapsulates the meaning of “organizing” the strategic configuration of “circumstances”. It therefore aims to create an order of “circumstances” more favorable and advantageous to Chinese interests.

From a strategic point of view, “organizing circumstances” does not mean fixing parameters. It tries to “canalize” the flows of events as they deploy in the continuity of space and time.

As it happens, the development of the Chinese presence in the Antarctic is both a signal and a vector of the way China deploys a worldwide strategy of influence. This strategy extends from pole to pole (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Antarctic China-1: Strategies for a Very Cold Place” 31 May, 2021, and “Jean-Michel Valantin, “Towards a US-China War? (1) and (2): Military Tensions in the Arctic”, The Red Team Analysis Society, September 16, 2019 ».

The Invisible strategy

As we have seen in Antarctic China (1), Beijing drives the building of a fifth ground station. In the same time, it adds the Beidou satellite positioning systems to existing stations. Meanwhile, the Chinese fishing fleet is more and more active in the Antarctic Ocean (Anne-Mary Brady, “China, Russia Push GPS Rival in Antarctica”, The Australian, September 6, 2018).

Chinese strategy IS Chinese

If, from a Western point of view, these developing capabilities appear as a strategy in itself, they also have another dimension, anchored in Chinese philosophical and strategic thought (Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road: the Pakistani strategy”, The Red Team Analysis, May 18, 2015).

That dimension is grounded in an understanding of the spatial dimension of China, in the geographic sense. Space is not only conceived as a support to spread Chinese influence and power to the “outside”, but also to allow the Middle Kingdom to “aspirate” what it needs from the “outside” to the “inside”  (Quynh Delaunay, Naissance de la Chine moderne, L’Empire du Milieu dans la globalisation, 2014).

This is why we qualify some spaces as being “useful” to the deployment of the Chinese strategy. It is also why each “useful space” is related, and “useful”, to other “useful spaces”. In the same dynamic, the different countries involved in the deployment of the Chinese strategy are “useful spaces” for China. 

This philosophy of space and time as flows is the basic material of the Chinese strategic tradition. As Scott Boorman, Arthur Waldron and David Lai, among others, establish quite clearly, this tradition expresses itself especially well through the “Go game”. This very ancient game emphasizes the importance not to control, but to master the space of the adversary (Arthur Waldron, “China’s Military Classics”, Joint Forces Quarterly, Spring 1994). The strategy is to “convert” that space into one’s own. To do so, one has to “surround and conquer” the pieces, i.e. the space of the adversary.

The strategy of useful spaces

In order to turn the game into a victorious tendency, the main goal is to attack the strategy of the adversary and not “only” its space. This strategic philosophy suffuses some of the most important Chinese strategic works, such as Sun Zi’s The Art of War. It drove some of the major strategic developments during the twentieth century.

It is true, for example, of Mao’s “revolutionary warfare” against Japan and the nationalist military (Scott Boorman, ibid). As we have seen in The Red Team Analysis Society, it also drives the mammoth “Belt & Road initiative” (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China and the Belt and Road Initiative” section, The Red Team Analysis Society).

Hence, in this strategic context and tradition, the question arises of the “usefulness” of Antarctica. This “usefulness” appears in the context of the worldwide deployment of Chinese influence (David Lai, ibid). In other words, how is Beijing elaborating “shih”, the strategic configuration of favorable circumstances by installing capabilities in Antarctica?

From the Antarctic to a worldwide encirclement

The recent and rapid developments of the Chinese presence in the Arctic and in the Antarctic follow the same timelines. In other terms, we hypothesise that Beijing plays a worldwide “Go game” at a planetary scale.

Surround and Conquer

Within the framework of Go, China becomes the “Middle Kingdom” between the Arctic and the Antarctic. While it becomes a “near Arctic nation”, China “surrounds” the whole Indo-Pacific region between geographical China and the Antarctic  as a “useful space”. The same is true for the Atlantic Ocean, from the South Pole to the North pole ((Jean-Michel Valantin, “Is the West Losing the Warming Arctic?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, December 7, 2020).

This means that China uses its growing presence in the Arctic and in the Antarctic to increase its global influence. This happens through a subtle and multiscale Go and its strategy of “surround and conquer”. This game extends from one hemisphere to the other and joins the multiple continental and maritime “useful spaces”.

Encircling Australia

For example, the heightening Chinese presence in Antarctica “completes” the “encirclement” of Australia by the “useful Antarctic” at its south, while mainland China “occupies” its north. In other words, Australia is “under siege” in an immense “useful” Indo-Pacific ocean (Anne-Marie Brady, China as a Polar Great Power, 2017).

Australia is also directly useful to China, because of its coal and agricultural resources. Moreover, “surrounding’” it also means diminishing the “living space” of Japan and of the U.S. in the Pacific, i.e. some of the most powerful competitors of China in the Indo-Pacific region (Bonny Lin et alii, Regional Responses to U.S-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific Region, Rand Corporation, 2020)

Last Chinese standing

It is interesting to note that the Chinese strategic approach is located in a long game perspective. Furthermore, this relation to strategic time is embedded within the biological and climate change crisis. This mammoth crisis has deep consequences in the Indo-Pacific and Antarctic region.

A planetary crisis

The destabilization of different parts of the Antarctic glaciers is already accelerating and may soon reach an irreversible tipping point. This process is bringing massive quantities of water under the form of ice platforms. Then, those platforms literally crawl into the sea at a heightening rhythm and scale. During the 21st century, the breaking of the Antarctic ice sheet may add dozens of centimetres to the ocean global rise (Julie Brigham-Grette, Andrea Dutton, “Antarctica is Headed for a Climate Tipping Point by 2060, with Catastrophic Melting if Emissions Aren’t Cut Quickly”, The Conversation, 17 May 2021).

From a biological point of view, the current biodiversity crisis devastates the Indo-Pacific region, especially in its marine dimension. As a matter of fact, the quickly heightening levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, among them CO2, which have triggered climate change, are also acidifying the seawater (“Climate change indicators: Ocean Acidity“, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016).

This process combines with the chemical and biological impacts of land, industrial, and agricultural pollution. It endangers the fisheries, essential components of the food resources of entire maritime facades. These changes have direct geopolitical consequences, because they impact the most basic geophysical equilibrium upon which human societies and international relations depend ( Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization, a Maritime History of the World, 2013).

Dead zones

The chemical and biological situation of the Indian Ocean keeps deteriorating because of the multiplication of two other giant dead zones in the Indian Ocean (Harry Pettit, ‘The ocean is suffocating’: Fish-killing dead zone is found growing in the Arabian Sea – and it is already bigger than SCOTLAND”Mail on Line, 27 April 2017. One giant “dead zone” is also developing in the Gulf of Oman. It thus threatens marine life and fisheries in this part of the Arabian Sea.

Another giant “dead zone” spans at last 60.000 square km and grows in the Bay of Bengal. It, threatens the food resources of the 200 million people living on the littoral of the eight countries that surround the Bay (Amitav Gosh and Aaron Savion Lobo, “Bay of Bengal: depleted fish stocks and huge dead zone signal tipping point”The Guardian, 31 January 2017). In other terms, climate and ocean change are directly threatening the food security of hundreds of millions of people in Africa, in the Arabian Sea area and in South Asia.

The Middle Kingdom and Survival

In other words, China deploys its planetary scale great strategy, while the current massive bioclimatic crisis unfolds and suffuses everything and everyone on Earth. This crisis becomes a driver of international competition for access to resources.

As the development of Chinese fisheries in the Antarctic Ocean emphasizes, Beijing seems keen on driving China through the immense “perfect storm” of the climate and resources crisis. In order to implement this long-term strategy, China organises the world and planetary “circumstances” in an advantageous way for its national interests.

We must now see how this Antarctic “surround and conquer” – “shih” strategy combine with the Chinese space program (Peter Wood, Alex Stone, Taylor E. Lee, “China’s Space Ground Segment, building the Pillars of a Great Space Power”, Blue Path Labs Report for the China Aerospace Studies Institute, U.S Air University, March 1, 2021).

Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red Team Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

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