Chinese legend has it that the emperor chose twelve animals to represent each year of the zodiac, but he could not decide which one would be first and ruler of the others. The rat and the ox each vied for the position. The rat argued for its wisdom. The ox argued for its strength. The other ten animals were divided evenly on which animal to choose, so the emperor told the rat and the ox to take their case to the people. The people would decide who would become ruler of the zodiac.
The rat triumphed. The ox relied too heavily on size and brute force. The rat cleverly made itself appear twice as big, making it stand out relative to its normal size, and relative to the ox, gaining attention and bringing more people to its side.
Now that we find ourselves in the year of the rat – the start of a new twelve year cycle – is there a timely lesson here for the U.S. and China?
The thing is, both countries – while they might think they are clever rats – are increasingly acting like the ox. The U.S. no longer has a dramatic absolute advantage over China, and may never get that back – so it needs to think differently, like the wise and adaptable rat.
President Trump’s goal to “Make America Great Again” is the ascendant narrative. China has become powerful, the current argument goes, by not playing by the rules: it protects its market, subsidizes its industries, and follows unfair business practices — with no signs of changing. Despite decades of American engagement, China has failed to become more liberal and come in line with the international (western) system.
Containment is the new strategy: that the U.S. needs to assertively and unambiguously check China in key technologies, military expansion, and geopolitical affairs. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boldy called China’s ruling party the “central threat of our times.” Trump has used tariffs to push back on China more than any of his predecessors, emboldened by low unemployment, a roaring stock market and growing anti-foreign sentiment in the U.S. His – and thus that of the country – is the stance of an ox.