Asia’s rise to prominence in the past two decades has yielded a flurry of discussions by economists, international relations scholars and even historians. We are all excited about the prospect of something new, yet worried about what this means for global stability. Some want Asia to learn to be like the West so that they can ‘responsibily’ take over leadership. Some prefer the West to maintain its position at the front of global economics and politics. The problem with these diverse viewpoints is the assumption that the West and East are similar and the East will grow and turn out to be the same was what the West did over a century ago.
What the West fears is not being eclipsed by Asia but falling under the leadership of Asian economies. We spent a good portion of the last millenium under the economic stewardship of the transatlantic axis. Ever since the 1800s, Great Britain and later the United States created a global hegemon that we adapted and got used to. Asia was always that huge malnourished part of the map, seemingly dependent on Western leadership to stay alive. Things have changed.
Asia’s rise to prominence is driven by economic growth. There’s no problem with that. The problem is that Eastern growth has been done in ways that the West did not deem it to be possible or sustainable. The Washington Consensus was primarily formulated as a blueprint for developing economies to learn how to become developed like the west. That consensus yielded poor results. Watching China’s rise, world leaders and scholars re-evaluated their prescribed policies and formed the Beijing Consensus. It was a slap in the face and nobody likes to be wrong.
Asian growth is scary because the West doesn’t understand the mechanics behind it.
Asian growth is scary because the West doesn’t understand the mechanics behind it. It defies ‘logic’. Growth without free speech, limited democracies and in some cases even under authoritarian rule. How can this be? Surely, the bubble must pop some where. Or is it?
As human beings, we are often lulled into the trap of thinking that everyone is like us. The American researcher looks at Asia with Western lenses and sees an incomprehensible picture. The same can be said in reverse. Plenty of academic effort has gone into research and surveys to find out how citizens are responding both in the West and East. The results are baffling. Of course they are.
Comparing Asia to the West is like saying a tomato should behave like an Apple since they are both red. We may all be human beings having the same red blood flow through our veins, but we are different people. It is very difficult to compare the two groups and that is why results of the aforementioned studies are both confounding and a waste of time.
Why are Asians not valuing freedom of speech? Why are Asians happier under authoritarian rule as compared to Americans under democracy? Or to turn it around, why are Americans so obsessed with freedom that they will endanger the lives of their own citizens in order to ‘protect’ it? Well, because the West and East have very different people with very different values and systems of beliefs. Cross comparisons mean nothing and are a waste of time.
Cross comparisons mean nothing and are a waste of time.
One can argue about influence. Western policies have efficiently permeated into the East via multiple routes ranging from academics to culture. But the net effect while visible, remains rather small. Asia is beginning to expound, defend and export its world views. Hollywood isn’t the only thing to watch. There’s Bollywood and the ever present Japanese and Korean culture craze.
We fear what we do not understand and this is the barrier that is preventing the West from understanding their fears.
Not the Same
What will Asia be like when it is fully developed? Will it form the next axis of power just like the transatlantic axis of the United States and United Kingdom? Probably not. However, because we are so used to seeing a world power defined in that manner, we fear the day Asia becomes more economically and militarily powerful than the West.
Believing that future giants will behave just like the ones today severely ignores the capability of learning.
Believing that future giants will behave just like the ones today severely ignores the capability of learning. Is Asia going to have the most powerful military and the most advanced weaponry after taking the economic lead? All indicators do not agree with it. Asia has little interest to be a heavily weaponized power. One can argue that China seems to be bulking its navy but if you would compare the size of China’s military forces to its physical / population size, the need to increase its military strength is not surprising. Many countries have more military power per capita than that of China. For a country that exports so much to the world, it will be counter intuitive for them to start threatening their global customers by arming themselves with more pointy sticks than needed.
American power and influence was tested and ultimately triumphed in the cold war. It is through this period where the lack of cooperation and dialogue led to frosty global relations that America looked inwards in it struggle for legitimacy. Asia is doing the exact opposite. Asia is open. We do not trade only within or with those that share our system of beliefs. No. We trade openly and so are our borders. There is no large scale effort to hide or deceive. Things are very different this time.
Asia is growing differently and will end up leading the world economically in a different way.
It is said that the person we fear the most is the one we see in the mirror. If so, the Asian rise should not be deemed as a frightening prospect. Asia is growing differently and will end up leading the world economically in a different way from what Great Britain and the United States have done.
There’s no need to fear us, we are not your twin.
Time, Lots of it
Asia’s rise is in its infancy. The four tiger economies are the earliest few in Asia to have risen and have reached a matured level. Japan, once Asia’s flagbearer, has expired in the late 1990s, suffering from long run recessions that has caused decimal point growth to be celebrated. But Asia is a lot more than just Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
There is China, the huge behemoth that has learning to walk. China’s rise will take a lot longer than the incredible speeds of the four Asian tigers. It is a huge economy that is so diverse, its current performance is merely the tip of the iceberg. There is potential, lots of it, but moving over 1 billion people into GDP fueled growth and prosperity will take more than the 3 decades it required to reach its current state.
The question here is simply time. It is likely for the region to take more than 30 years to fully realize its potential.
How about India? The world’s largest democracy is an even slower giant. It has grown slowly and has not been as effective in moving its citizens out of poverty. But India has what China does not, a comparative advantage in the technology and services sector. If India is able to strategically tap into this rich reserve of technological black gold, we may very well see a Silicon Valley in Asia. But India is muddling slow. It takes years for the freely elected government to steer the economy in ways that would exploit its strengths. India will need a lot of time.
It is easy to remember the success stories and the big two and then leave out all the rest. South East Asia is a new hotbed of growth. Formerly dormant countries torn apart by internal strife and conflict have mended their wounds and are looking to grow. Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines are highlights. Singapore no longer looks at its neighbours with an air of superiority. Even Myanmar is moving forward quickly, setting up Western favoured institutions in what does seem to be a permanent change. Singapore’s time in the spotlight has passed and other countries in the region now bathe in its warm glow. But yes, all of these countries will need plenty of time.
Nations and economies will be given more than enough time to make their adjustments. It is not as if these adjustments are as drastic as feared.
Asia has a potential that economists are not quite ready to handle. The path forward is filled with difficulties and port holes. It may be a long and winding road but Asia is taking its steps forward firmly. The question here is simply time. It is likely for the region to take more than 30 years to fully realize its potential.
In the meantime, the world will slowly adjust towards a new equilibrium. There will be no big bang shocks akin to the fall of communism or the incredulous open trade policies that can turn an emerging economy haywire overnight. Nations and economies will be given more than enough time to make their adjustments. It is not as if these adjustments are as drastic as feared.
There are many underlying assumptions in discussions of a new world whether be it in the sphere of economics or international relations. These assumptions must be addressed and relooked because they are skewing the results of research and shaping predictions in ways that are far from reality.
Hopefully by the time Asia has finally matured, the West would stop seeing us as an evil twin waiting to take their place in the world.
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