Since its subject has long been human propensities, does China's calendar supply insights on its foreign policy? If so, what can we learn of 2018 and the years ahead? If not, why does it accent a philosophical tone in a way that others prioritise festivities?
As an East Asian springboard, the traditional Chinese zodiac revolves with animals for 12 years, each year highlighting the underlying characteristics of the human being born in its year.
In successive zodiacal order, those animals include the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. One positive element gets extracted from each animal: rats, for example, exemplify a quick-wit, ox diligence, tiger bravery, rabbit elegance, dragon confidence, snake wisdom, horse energy, goat gentleness, monkey wealth, rooster observance, dog reliability, and pig generosity. One can then nuance the human portrait by pairing with lucky colours, numbers, flowers, and elements.
Without delving that deep into the zodiac, what preliminary foreign policy messages can be extracted? For one thing, since the positive is elevated over the negative in each animal's case, we would expect China's foreign policy to promote stability over bellicosity. Evidence suggests China is no less self-seeking than its comparable counterparts, for example, India, Russia, or the United States, but drum-beating or war-mongering has served as a lesser resort than elsewhere. Whether building a naval station in the South China Sea, patrolling the Indian Ocean with its battleships, carving strategic passages alongside Bhutan, or pouring more money into its weaponry, China has not gone to the extreme by dispatching combat troops into embattled zones like Russia has recently done in Syria or the United States has long done in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Korea.
At no other moment can this tepidity be more evident than in 2018. As the Year of the Dog, China's zodiac predicts a year of China pitching itself as the most reliable and truest of friends. Since it is also a year highlighting the earth element, we should also expect China to be stubborn and solitary-minded. In foreign policy these translate as single-mindedly pursuing agreements, even if asymmetrically and selfishly projected, stopping well short of belligerence and provocation.
China has entered isolated Iran and embattled Afghanistan to build infrastructures, rather than install missile launching-pads, as Russia has done in the former, or deploy troops as the United States has done in the latter. It has encouraged Pakistan to make Mandarin an official language, and outflanked India across both the Doklam passage and Dhaka's Stock Exchange, while prowling around the Maldives amid domestic political turmoil to insure India does not intervene. True, China's presence is not at all saintly, but the distinction from what we see elsewhere should not be ignored: the ulterior Chinese motive of controlling these locations may be no different than the Russians or the United States, but its instruments are far different and temperature-raising capacity considerably lower.
India's military control of Kashmir is only deepening, or vice versa, the resistance is both deepening and diversifying; Russia's more brusque Ukraine-retention and proxy-fighting for the Damascus government in the Syrian countryside is also heating up and spilling into UN offsetting actions; and upgrading US troops for Afghanistan depict a 'dog-eat-dog' temperament in contrast to China's 'dog as man's reliable friend' approach.
If such resemblance between China's zodiac and its foreign policy actions turns out to be accurate in 2018, then in the Year of the Pig, 2019, we should expect China to play more of the 'Marshall Plan' benevolent US role just after World War II. It has taken steps consistent with such an outcome by resuscitating open trade in the 2017 World Economic Forum gathering, then plunging into the 2017 Paris Climate Agreement in a way the United States did not, Russia is indifferent to, and India finds too uphill a task against its other imperatives.
Pushing the point, could China actually be bailing countries out of infrastructural deficiencies through its aid, or exploiting the circumstances for its own benefits? After all, how China took over Hambantota port, which it built, from a defaulting Sri Lanka, raises alarm bells in the multiple other countries it has loaned money to for one project or another. Pakistan's Gwador could be next in line, if whispering Pakistani willows serve as any guide; while over-commitment in bankrupt Afghanistan could become the textbook case of China-dependency over the long-haul. At this rate, if China's Belt-and Road Initiative projects pave the way for global dominance in a way the United States, or even the Soviet Union, could not, it could be a bumpy ride given the growth of implicit localised grumbles: borrowing countries need the Chinese financial support more than their political capacity to make functional changes. Russia and the United States face the perils of their own foreign adventures, as military foreign adventures invariable bring.
In other words, a dog-eat-dog world finds a rival paradigm in the far more cultivated yet equally draining Chinese counterpart. In its emergence, this rivalry reminds us of the 1930s when the dollar, franc, and sterling fought to prevail, ultimately producing a deep depression. That depression might not have happened as a responsible great power stood up to supply the much-needed collective goods, like an open market, foreign investment, and developmental aid. It was more World War II than the 1930s depression that pushed the United States to do so. Likewise did the Great 2008-10 Recession prompt China to assume world leadership, one arena at a time.
Few other zodiacs take us this far in interpreting global politics. Bangladesh's is too culturally driven to have space for that, while the more generic Gregorian year has become so secularised as to almost wholly be party-propelled. Whether China's helps us with prediction, it is too early to tell, but in an age of decentralising information and interpretations, it should have its own full day in court.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.