The Asian century has truly arrived

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on February 19, 2019

Positive outlook: Asia is set to become a third force alongside Europe and the US

‘Asia Rising’ goes beyond China, embracing India and South-East Asia. But concerns over democratic institutions remain

Parag Khanna likes to say that he’s been a “global citizen” before the term came into vogue. He was born in India, spent a peripatetic childhood, moving with his father, who worked in Tata Exports, from the Middle East to New York and Germany. Today, he lives in Singapore, which he calls the “capital of Asia”, and has travelled to almost 150 countries.

Unlike other teenagers who go searching for the bright lights, when he was 16 he went backpacking through Central Asia.

This makes him the perfect person to join the dots in his latest book, The Future is Asian: Global Order in the 21st century. Since the 1980s economists and strategic thinkers have been predicting Asia was the sleeping giant that was about to rise. Khanna takes up the theme at a time when the process is already well under way and he tells of a continent being linked in multiple ways and directions.

Khanna’s Asia stretches from Japan in the north-eastern periphery all the way to the Gulf countries and Turkey — he insists this is the “only one correct definition of Asia.”

A third force

The sprawling continent is home to almost five billion people, more than half the world’s population. Already it’s a new rising force in global economics. Khanna sees it as a third force alongside Europe and the US. Do the Japanese feel they’re part of the same region as the Gulf countries and Turkey? Maybe not, but Khanna maintains they are and should feel connected. Economic growth is happening in leaps and bounds all around the region. South Korea, for instance, will have trade worth $70 billion with Vietnam by 2020 and one South Korean company, Samsung, has $18 billion worth of investments there.

More than 100,000 Koreans live in Vietnam. And by 2040, as the countryside gets on the move, according to Khanna, more than one billion people from Pakistan and India to Vietnam will uproot their lives and move to cities.

Too much on China

One reason Khanna says he wrote this book now is he was exasperated by the excessive focus on China, both by thinkers and the Western press in recent years. He says: “Books about Asia have only been about China — and China without the Asian context. There’s been this assumption other Asians including India, South East Asia, the Japanese and Koreans are all inert in some way.”

To be sure, China still takes up a large chunk of this book, in fact around 40 per cent. But India’s also a becoming a key Asian player and gets 20 per cent of the book. “This is the first time I give India very serious treatment in one of my books because, quite frankly, India didn’t deserve it in previous periods,” he says, pinning the Indian rise to Asian prominence to the start of this decade.

In Khanna’s telling, Asia’s resurgence has come in three stages. In the first wave, there was the rebirth of Japan and South Korea, through the decades after World War II and the Korean War.

Then, in the 1980s, came the rise of what he calls Greater China — the People’s Republic, Hong Kong and Taiwan. He believes Taiwan is doubly disadvantaged and, as China gets more powerful, will find it difficult to resist its bear-hug. At one level, China has arm-twisted most countries to de-recognise Taiwan and, at another level, it does huge volumes of business with it. That’s a lethal embrace.

Today, the third wave of Asia Rising is taking place everywhere from Indonesia to India and Vietnam. This region is also younger than greying Japan and China, which is ageing more slowly.

Khanna is also a fan of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which, according to him, began the day the Soviet Union collapsed. The way he sees it, these are just old trade routes disrupted during the colonial era and now are being resurrected. He says the BRI will have hiccups but the job of connecting the region will continue and even India will build its own links.

Role of democracy

Will the rise of Asia lead to a devaluing of concepts like democracy, which some countries in this region view as a foreign import? Khanna doesn’t think so, and points to countries like Japan, India and Indonesia, which have all built democratic traditions. But he believes that in many parts of Asia, effectiveness is seen as more important than the act of voting itself.

Singapore, for instance, is a tightly controlled state, but Khanna insists the government constantly keeps its ear to the ground in its efforts to keep track of public opinion. The same, he says, goes for China. “It will probably never be democratic but will continue to be consultative and people have a different kind of voice.” Inevitably, believers in traditional democratic ideals might find it difficult to concur with his version of democracy.

And to people who say China’s taking over large swathes of Africa, Khanna notes it’s India which has deep links with the continent, via the roughly three million Indian-origin people who live there. He says: “There’s 150 years of good demographic flows between India and Africa and thousands of years of trading history.”

He also reckons Africa and India have a shared colonial heritage and feels African governments and societies will always resemble India more than China.

There’s much to dispute in Khanna’s rosy view of an Asia where economic growth will flourish in the coming years. For instance, he talks about ports like Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and Sittwe in Myanmar being set up, but slides over the fact hardly any ships are calling at these expensively built facilities.

At one point, he says: “The combined strength and determination of China and Pakistan will eventually force even the proud nationalist Modi to accept the status quo.” What that means isn’t exactly clear but he ventures a suggestion that India might “cede a Kashmir settlement in exchange for China reducing its damming of the headwaters of the Brahmaputra River.”

This week has been dominated by bad news about suicide bombers and sabre-rattling by two nuclear powers. Even if it errs on the side of over-optimism, this book offers a counter to all that with its vision of a new era that could lie ahead if we keep our eye on the ball and economic growth. Or, as President Bill Clinton put it: “It's the economy, stupid!”

Published on February 19, 2019

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