It’s a good thing that the Greek alphabet has 24 letters. That way, pop psychologists and hacks like yours truly can advance catchy theories for a long time about this and that cultural or political phenomenon. You have no doubt heard of the alpha male or female. More recently, there is a new addition: the sigma male. There have also been beta, delta, epsilon, gamma and omega males, with slightly different psychological traits, but roughly, we can generalise and say they all fall under the category of “losers”. I think they originally come from Brave New World , by Aldous Huxley who incidentally was a sigma man, a Greek letter classification that interestingly wasn’t featured in his science fiction classic. The phrase sigma male has recently gained online currency. There are YouTube channels devoted exclusively to analysing or glorifying such individuals. Supposedly, sigma men have the competence, independence and intelligence of alphas. But instead of enjoying dominating and leading followers, sigmas are “lone wolves”. They have few friends or allies, but can form useful relations when the need arises. They don’t like to be dominated or told what to do, but they don’t hesitate to dominate and influence others, not for their own ego, but for longer-term goals and plans. They are clear-headed about what they want and how to get there, and prefer to set their own rules. Alphas also have some of the same characteristics, but they prefer to lay down the rules for everyone to follow. They also would not accept other alphas within the same pack. When you have two alphas, there is bound to be war. If you work in a decent-sized organisation, I am sure you have seen plenty of such dramas in your office. Well, doesn’t it sound a bit like the relationship between China and the United States in the past few decades? Washington likes to lay down the rules for everyone, which it then calls “the rules-based international order”. Beijing has few formal allies and prefers to have informal bilateral relations with friendly states. No one would dispute that the US has been the big alpha at least since the second world war. And like all alphas, it would not tolerate an alpha-wannabe. Many people believe China now wants to be the alpha. It’s unclear, though, if that’s the case. It has been more of a sigma and will remain so for a long time. Sometimes the sigma speaks a little too loudly and so attracts unwanted attention from the alpha, who may well consider such noisy disruptions as challenges or provocations. When everyone else has a table in a classy restaurant but you have the only VIP room, anyone who gets a bigger and nicer table – which is not even a private room – will be perceived as a threat to your social status. China is perceived as an alpha-challenger because the alpha is always insecure. In the latter’s eye, anyone who is successful relative to the others and is rising up the hierarchy will automatically be seen as a threat. In terms of technology, finance, media dominance and the ability to wage war, China has come a long way, but it is still far behind alpha-America. It’s rather pointless pointing to the growth in gross domestic product when economists increasingly consider it a poor measure of anything. China could still be the weaker nation even if its GDP exceeds that of the US. Unfortunately, politicians still boast about such figures and it is similar to chest-pounding by alpha primates. When you have two alphas in the same room, they will inevitably come to blows. They will not back away until one is beaten. Some people call that “the Thucydides trap”. While an alpha will naturally see a sigma as a threat and will do everything to neutralise it, a sigma may have enough guile and wisdom to preserve peace not just for his own interest, but for everyone’s sake.