Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:12 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:12 | SYDNEY

What sort of Asia? What sort of rise?


Graeme Dobell

20 January 2009 13:21

A joke making the rounds in China:

1949: Only socialism could save China
1979: Only capitalism could save China
1989: Only China could save socialism
2009: Only China could save capitalism

That joke, picked up by the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a gentle way of introducing three books from 2008 which examined the biggest of trends: The rise of Asia. The questions are equally big. What sort of rise? What sort of Asia?

The most optimistic view is offered by Kishore Mahbubani in The New Asian Hemisphere: The irresistible shift of global power to the East. Kishore is a fine example of the Singapore meritocracy. A joke he used in a speech several years ago recounted his first visit to Beijing as Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry. At his first meeting, the Permanent Secretary title was translated in Mandarin as ‘The Eternal Typist’.

There are few glimpses of such humour in this earnest example of the new Asian triumphalism. Kishore Mahbubani was one of the more intellectual exponents of the ’Asia values’ argument, deployed in the early 1990s to explain why Asia was both different and successful. The new sense of triumph takes up some of the same elements of the earlier values school. Where the Asian values school merely emphasised a set of differences from the West, the new mood is of victory over the West. So not just the rise of Asia, but the relative decline of the West.

For Kishore Mahbubani, the major historical trend of our time is the unravelling of Western influence, marked by a steady delegitimisation of Western power:

Few in the West have grasped the full implication of the two most salient features of our historical epoch. First, we have reached the end of the era of Western domination of world history (but not the end of the West, which will remain the single strongest civlisation for decades more). Second, we will see an enormous renaissance of Asian societies.

Please note the precision of the fin de siecle judgement: after 500 years on top, the West’s position as the strongest player can now be measured in decades. Kishore is good on the rise of Asia, but not so rigorous in describing how that rise will play out. He offers three Asian scenarios:

  1. The most likely course is the March to Modernity, a continuation of current trends which will see Asia lead the way to a more peaceful, stable and prosperous world.
  2. The unhappier scenario is the Retreat into Fortresses: the West feels so threatened by Asia that it puts up the political and economic walls.
  3. The most unlikely path is the Triumph of the West: as foretold by Fukuyama in ’The End of History’, Western liberal democracy is adopted by Asia.

The three scenarios are well explored, but the faith in Asia’s dynamic pragmatism means an obvious fourth path is ignored: Asia cocks up.

Enter Bill Emmott with Rivals: How the power struggle between China, India and Japan will shape our next decade. As you’d expect from a former editor of The Economist, Emmott is less critical of the West than Kishore Mahbubani.

Both are in total agreement, though, on the big central fact: the most important trend in world affairs is the shift in economic and political power. Asia will get richer and stronger and will change the global balance of power.

The two books can be read together, because Emmott explores the fourth scenario that Mabubani wants to ignore — the potentially bitter struggle between Asia’s giants. Emmott quotes an Indian diplomat: ‘The thing you have to understand is that both of us (India and China) think that the future belongs to us. We can’t both be right.’

Emmott is good on how Delhi, Tokyo and Beijing are starting to think about this competition. Asia is becoming a single entity. But at the top are three of the world’s most powerful countries, each undergoing transformations and subject to huge domestic and international pressures.

The third perspective on the rise of Asia comes from a region that doesn’t impinge for a moment on the imaginings of Emmott or Mahbubani — the South Pacific. All growing power systems expand, and Asia is reaching deep into the life of the South Pacific. Europe and the US have been great influences on the South Pacific without ever noticing. Now it is Asia’s turn.

The book is from one of the grand academic Ratus of Island studies. Ron Crocombe has been working in the South Pacific for five decades. He comes from the blunt, truth-telling end of academia. His dispatch from the Cook Islands sets out the case in its title: Asia in the Pacific Islands: Replacing the West.

The Crocombe thesis is simple and sweeping:

A spectacular transition is under way in the Pacific Islands. For the past 200 years, external influences, whether cultural, economic, political or other, have come overwhelmingly from Western sources. That is now in the process of shifting to predominantly Asian sources.