THE FUTURE IS ASIAN: GLOBAL ORDER IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
Parag Khanna, Weidenfield and Nicholson, London 2019
Hachette India, Printed and bound in Manipal, 433 pp. Price: Rs 699
Anita Inder Singh
Writing with facility, using a wealth of statistics and provocative arguments, Parag Khanna enthuses about a dynamic Asia going into the global lead. Stretching from the Red Sea to Japan, Australia and New Zealand, Asia includes most of the world’s largest countries and advanced economies. Asia has most of the world’s cities, foreign exchange reserves, largest banks, technology and industrial companies and armies. Singapore and Japan have ‘the most powerful passports’. Singapore’s “Crazy Rich Asians” have even inspired Brexiteers, who dream of Britain becoming the “Singapore of Europe”. How the once mighty have fallen! Those invoking Britain’s former imperial power to justify Brexit want one of its smallest former colonies to be the role model for Little Britain.
Khanna’s Asian century began in May 2017, when China hosted the first Belt and Road Intiative (BRI) summit in Beijing. At this historic gathering, China assembled the heads of the 68 African, European and Asian countries which had joined its BRI . They represented half of the world’ s GDP and the largest effort to connect the world commercially and culturally.
The BRI was conceived by Asians for Asians. Really? In fact, the BRI is a vital component of China’s national rejuvenation and was enshrined into the ruling Communist Party’s constitution in 2017. And China is not building a combat-ready world class military by 2050 merely to advance the connectivity of Asians. Ask China’s smaller and weaker neighbours . Beijing challenges their sovereignty by invoking its version of history – even as they welcome strong trade and investment ties with China. But Khanna is right that problems of indebtedness are renegotiated and settled. For, China does show flexibility in its foreign dealings.
Despite cultural diversity and the inability to forge pan-Asian ideas, Asian interests and identities are intertwined. Asian countries buy and sell the most goods to one another. Intermarriages between Asians abroad have created “ Ch-Indians” in Singapore and “Indi-pinos” in Dubai. Yet how do their numbers compare with the fact that at least 20 percent of marriages in the US take place with a foreign-born person?
Asia is America’s largest vendor and customer . The US is dispensable. It remains the sole superpower but it is declining economically, socially and culturally. Since 1945, Western laws and culture have dominated the world . Rising Asia favours the Chinese phrase, “community of common destiny”.
Not quite. India and Japan back the liberal rules based order . This US-dominated order gave Asia – and Europe – the stability which provided the groundwork for the advancement of their prosperity. The US alone has the power to prevent instability is Asia. Whether it uses that power – either in the South China Sea or Afghanistan – is another matter. ASEAN countries are making political and economic deals with China in part because the US is not asserting its power.
Moreover, China’s $ 14 trillion economy cannot easily catch up with America’s $ 20 trillion one. In the trade war Beijing seeks agreement with Washington with the intent of reducing an unfavorable fallout for itself.
China-led connectivity has prompted India and other Asian countries to increase connectivity with one another. Geopolitical rivalries will thus speed up the Asianisation of Asia. Even so, isn’t it doubtful that connectivity rather than money – especially US dollars – drives the world? As a connectivity project, China’s BRI could not have been put on the rails without Chinese cash. In fact, part of China’s achievement that it can finance its BRI independently.
In contrast, India needs help from richer countries to promote its connectivity – and other interests. Like all Asian countries , India offers the world cultural attractions and exports. But it dawdles on the road to global power. Other Asian countries have seen it as ‘a squalid, overpopulated, quasi-socialist third-world morass; big, but not important.’ Economically and militarily, China has raced ahead of India. ‘As a consolation’, China has welcomed India into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – with Pakistan.
If scientific knowledge is power, the high quality of China’s scientific research does threaten the US. China’s ability to attract 400,000 foreign students is impressive. They mostly comprise South Koreans and Southeast Asians, an increasing number of Indians and Russians – and even 14,000 Americans. But doesn’t the US do better? It attracts more than 1.1 million Asian students. There are about 150,000 foreign students in Japan – and 42,000 in India, mostly from Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan.
Admiration for China’s leadership of the Asian century leads Khanna to write off China’s authoritarianism. Opinion polls in the US reveal that the percentage of Americans who feel it is essential to live in a democracy has fallen from three quarters to one third. But how many of these Americans have lived under a corrupt dictatorship? And had Khanna’s educational experience been confined to authoritarian states would he have had the intellectual freedom to gain the knowledge essential to write his internationally informed books?
The questions raised by Khanna’s stimulating book highlight his deft weaving together of technology, geopolitics, economics, globalisation – and the decline and rise of great powers. The Future is Asian will be widely read.