Contours of the ‘Asian Century’

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Book Review


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.

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