The leitmotiv of a new German strategy paper on China is that country’s board game wei qi, also known as Go, in which there is no outright victory or defeat.  

The players compete on a grid of 19 by 19 lines, using 180 pieces or stones each to encircle and capture the opponent. Multiple games can take place on the board simultaneously.  

“Unlike in chess, the aim of wei qi is not to checkmate the other but to acquire advantageous positions and defend what are known as ‘liberties’,” the German document declares on its opening page. It may be the most coherent policy document on China yet published by a democratic government and none of its options are simple.  

As it happens, wei qi is also the guiding theme of Kissinger’s 2011 opus On China. The centenarian statesman of German origin, who was granted an audience with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping on July 20, thinks it marks the difference between their civilizations. 

Chess, writes Kissinger, “is about total victory.” By contrast, the wei qi player seeks relative advantage. While chess teaches Clausewitz’s concepts of the decisive point and the center of gravity — familiar to the brains in the foreign ministry in Berlin — wei qi teaches the art of strategic encirclement. Rarely, observes Kissinger, did Chinese statesmen risk it all on a single battle. Their ideal was subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of advantage. 

What unites these two Teutonic intellectual exercises? To go to Beijing at his age is a sign that Kissinger fears things between America and China are grave. A clash over Taiwan could happen at any time, with global consequences. The official Chinese readout of his remarks quotes him as saying that all will lose “if the two countries go to war.” 

For Germany, the message is in wei qi: maneuver is better than battle. But the paper is more thoughtful and more robust than suggested by first reports, which focused on German business in China. To be sure, it says that more than 5,000 German companies operate in the People’s Republic, a million jobs in Germany depend on them, hundreds of thousands of people are engaged in activity with China and numerous Länder, towns, cities, universities, and scientific institutes have partnerships. 

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That said, the German strategy is clear-eyed. China, it states, “is endeavoring to influence the international order in line with the interests of its single-party system.” At the same time, China wants to create economic and technological “dependencies” to make others rely on it while becoming more autonomous. Its relations with Germany are out of balance. The Xi Jinping regime is trying to alter the foundations of the rules-based post-war order and to call into question the principles of international law. It amounts to a threat. 

“China has changed. As a result of this and China’s political decisions, we need to change our approach to China,” the paper says. “De-risking is urgently needed. However, we are not pursuing a de-coupling of our economies.”  

The relief in German boardrooms was immediate, but a closer reading of the strategy makes clear that a step change is required. For the avoidance of doubt, as lawyers say, the government states bluntly that “universal human rights cannot be watered down. They are inalienable and apply worldwide.” It supports European Union (EU) global sanctions for serious breaches “including in China.” 

This will be uncomfortable for executives. Take the Volkswagen dilemma. Its chiefs are promising an audit of the car firm’s operation in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region to address claims of abuses and forced labor. China is key to its profits and growth. What to do? 

The government lists more policies that Chinese officials find hostile. It will enforce Germany’s Supply Chain Due Diligence Act. China, it says, must gain “no competitive advantage” from human rights violations. Export controls must be strengthened and credit guarantees must avoid “unwanted technology transfer.” Vetting will be applied to inbound Chinese investment in critical infrastructure, media, and cutting-edge technologies.  

The paper’s most emphatic point is the most difficult to enact: the principle of reciprocity. German firms are shut out of a host of sectors in China. Scientific cooperation is skewed by China’s “Military-Civil Fusion.” Trade is contentious. German interests are thus best protected by aligning policies with Europe. The government rejects China’s customary divide-and-rule by refusing to negotiate on matters for which the EU is responsible.  

The paper may be written in terms that the former Dr. Kissinger of Harvard University would have found suitable for a seminar. But in an understated way, it is recognition that Germany’s liberal democratic order and its social market economy are up against a dictatorial leviathan. Chess, then, or wei qi

Michael Sheridan is the author of ‘The Gate to China: A new history of the People’s Republic and Hong Kong’ published by HarperCollins and Oxford University Press (USA). He was the Far East Correspondent of The Sunday Times for 20 years. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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