THE JUST-CONCLUDED visit of the Chinese Prime Minister, Mr Wen Jiaobao, to India has set alarm bells ringing in capitals such as Washington, the central point of concern being whether the visit heralds the beginning of the so-called Asian Century.

The worry of course stems from the fact that the onset of the Asian Century would automatically mean the close of the American Century which, in its essence, began with the military forays made by President Theodore Roosevelt outside the geographical limits of the country in the early years of the 20th Century and the setting up of assembly line production of motor cars by Henry Ford.

Now, what precisely does one mean when one talks about an Asian Century? The easy answer to this would be to compare it with the American Century and suggest that the Asian Century would have all the attributes military, economic and socio-cultural of its American counterpart. To this correspondent at least, such a methodology would involve grossly over-simplifying the issue because of the wide-ranging and fundamental changes that have overcome the international scenario during the past 100 years. What this implies is that even if Asia had all the attributes that the US had during the 20th Century, the 21st Century would still not come to be known as the Asian Century.

Second, one crucial difference between the American Century and the Asian Century would be that while in the former case one single sovereign nation ruled the roost, namely the US, in the latter it would be more the `Asian region' instead of one sovereign entity. If this is so, then the military and socio-cultural attributes of the `century' we are talking about would have to undergo a fundamental change for the simple reason that there would be no military and socio-cultural `dominance' in the sense the US had in the last century.

So if there is to be an Asian Century, it would have to be based on economic predominance which, as things stand now, would have to be a `disaggregated' dominance in view of the fact that economies such as of Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan and India are involved.

What this in turn means is that the India-China axis really has nothing to do with the emergence of an Asian Century in the conventional sense of the term because the two countries do not comprise `economic Asia' in its entirety. So if we have to talk about an Asian Century it would not mean much more than a stronger economic presence of the Asian economies, each, importantly, with a different qualitative link to developed economies like the US and the EU.

This also should put into proper perspective the view that Mr Wen Jiabao's visit to New Delhi has kicked off the process of ushering in an Asian Century. One ventures to suggest that nothing like that has happened. The long and the short of it is that New Delhi and Beijing have expressed a strong mutual desire to cooperate economically, each having a definite strategic goal.

The essential point is that the goals are not identical if for no other reason than the fact that both are Big Powers in the Asian context, an attribute which (at least more to the Chinese than the Indian) leaves little room for compromise where strategic national interests are concerned.

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 16, 2005)
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