China Chess

The highly recommendable Netflix series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ recounts the life of an orphan girl who finds an escape in chess tournaments in the 60s, competing in a field dominated by men. Beyond the storyline and film aesthetics, the movie brings to life the game of chess and the gruesome discipline required to become a master player.


Garry Kasparov, who became the world chess champion at the age of 22 in 1984, consulted on the series. In a fascinating interview (2005), Mr. Kasparov summarized some of the unique features of chess: While set on a delimited eight-by-eight board, there is a quasi-infinite number of moves at the beginning of each game; success relies not only on the ability to recognize patterns thanks to cerebral analysis, but also on sheer intuition, patience, creativity and psychology. An artful mix of IQ and EQ, a poetry even which can also be found in the best M&A deals. A voice declares in the trailer of the TV series, ‘creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand or, for that matter, genius and madness.’


Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor (1977-1981) to the Carter administration wrote a book aptly entitled ‘The Grand Chessboard(1997), which allows for a nice segue. In it, he argued that the United States had become complacent after ‘winning’ the cold war and was at risk of losing its hegemony. This, in turn, would lead to no less than global anarchy. As he considered the risk of various rivals emerging over the following decades, he wrote: ‘Even by the year 2020, it is quite unlikely even under the best of circumstances that China could become truly competitive in the key dimensions of global power’ (Chapter 6). What a beautiful example of geopolitical myopia, perhaps explained by decades of fixation on the Soviet Union, the mother of the greatest chess players.


It turns out that 2020 could be the year of China when considering its handling of the health crisis. In addition, painted in a corner by the Trump administration, China announced its participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (the ‘RCEP’) last week. In a comprehensive working paper by the Peterson Institute For International Economics, the authors show that China is set to become the largest beneficiary of the new trade agreement, with benefits estimated to offset about a third of a lasting trade war with the United States by 2030. But perhaps more significantly, the RCEP has pushed many Asian countries to opt for closer ties with their most important economic actor at the expense of the most important strategic one. The economic de-coupling of Asia from the West comes with a strategic twist.


Many supply chains will need to be reorganized around regional markets in the next decade. As industrial technologies companies and their customers do so, the ‘Atlas of Economic Complexity’ powered by Harvard can prove helpful. The tool assesses the industrial capabilities and know-how of any given country. For example, it shows that China ranks 18th in terms of the current state of its productive knowledge based on the diversity and complexity of its export basket, up 6 places since 2010 whilst the Unites States are ranked 11th (up one place over the same period). Japan and South Korea, both members of the RCEP, are ranked #1 and #3 respectively.* Most other members of the RCEP have been enjoying a stunning climb up the rankings in the last decades. The regional competition from Asia will only become fiercer.


While some of its geopolitical opponents have been focused on winning games of ‘snakes and ladders’, China has been playing its version of chess with the highest degree of discipline and ingenuity over the last three decades. The West must accept the challenge and get organized accordingly to maintain a global economic and geopolitical balance.


In the final shot of the series, Beth, the heroin of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, addresses her opponent with confidence: ‘Let’s play!’


* Switzerland ranks #2

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