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It’s Wei Qi, not Chess: China’s growing relative advantage in Africa

It’s Wei Qi, not Chess: China’s growing relative advantage in Africa

Photo: World Policy

Photo: World Policy

Although China may not be bent on global domination, it has a strategic ambition: the nation seeks to reclaim the power and respect that made it such a singular entity years ago. For thousands of years, China viewed itself as the “Middle Kingdom,” or the center of the universe. It saw little incentive to pursue anything outside of its vast territorial boundaries. Today, things have changed: China’s hunger for new land, raw materials and markets is leading the Chinese to the continent of Africa, where the nation’s influence is far more than simply budding.

In his book On China, Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger accurately characterized Chinese foreign policy in the context of one of its civilization’s most enduring games, wei qi. The wei qi player aims to encircle and capture all of her opponent’s pieces on the board. Unlike in chess, the objective of wei qi is not to achieve an all-out victory, but to claim a relative advantage. 

In the theoretical game for Africa, the Chinese seem to be gaining a relative advantage over the West. In 2009, China surpassed the U.S as Africa’s largest trading partner with the Sino-African trade relationship valued at $200 billion in 2013. The Chinese have penetrated African markets through the exchange of cheap manufactured goods and the construction of infrastructure such as airports, railroads, and dams. In turn, the Chinese have secured key natural resources (namely, oil and minerals), which account for 80% of their trade with the continent. In addition, by the end of 2009, nearly 50% of China’s cumulative foreign aid went to African countries.

Chinese influence in Africa has drawn the attention of the United States. In response to the new global power’s growing involvement on the continent, the United States has been taking steps to highlight its commitment to African nations. This summer, President Obama convened the U.S-Africa Leaders Summit, where the president distinguished the U.S and China’s intentions in Africa by saying, We don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources; we recognize Africa for its greatest resource, which is its people and its talents and their potential.” Although the summit also set out to address critical issues including human rights and access to healthcare, the summit was seen largely as an effort to begin countering Chinese influence on the African continent. According to an article in South Africa’s Business Day prior to the Leaders Summit, “the US government was running the risk of missing the African bus.” This conference was perhaps an opportunity to catch the “bus” at the next stop.

Kissinger writes that there are multiple ways of succeeding in a game of wei qi. However, the most talented players do so by placing their pieces into empty spaces, mitigating their opponent’s strategic potential. Africa can be perceived as this new “empty” space on the board, with China in the process of filling it. Africa’s untapped natural resources and markets will help China increase its relative advantage over the West in this round of global wei qi.

Konstantine Tettonis

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