Asia is not a continent, Parag Khanna observes; it is an extended region that includes some five billion people, whereas China’s population accounts for a mere 1.5 billion. As Khanna sees it, It is this immense assortment of humanity that will almost certainly define the future as the Asian Century.
Understanding the full extent of Asia requires a bit of mental gymnastics from Westerners who are accustomed thinking of Asia as a succession of disparate states, separate entities that seem to have little in common with each other. That perspective, Khanna observes, is a lingering after-effect of 19th and 20th century colonialism. As Khanna sees it, even the United States, which always thought of itself as anti-imperialist, has often been an indirect participant in colonial imperialism. The most glaring example may have been the Vietnam War in which Americans initially provided support to France’s postwar efforts to reclaim its lost colonies in Indochina.
The United Nations and many of the international institutions intended to provide economic and political stability after World War II also reflect, to a large extent, the power balance that existed in the world towards the end of the colonial era. The result has been a number of strange anomalies when one looks at the global order today.
The UN Security Council no longer represents the real distribution of power
Why, for instance, does France, which has a population of less than 70 million people, still wield veto power in the UN Security Council, while India, with a population of just over a billion citizens, has no permanent representation on the Council at all? And Japan, the third most powerful economy in the world, is excluded from a permanent seat. The reasons for not expanding leadership of the institutions are understandable. Add too many players and the system becomes unmanageable. But the cold truth is that the organization no longer reflects the real distribution of power in the world today, much less what it will be in the near future.
While many of the countries that make up Khanna’s vision of greater Asia are admittedly still disconnected from each other – and often burdened with internal political growing pains – the fact is that the Old World, in which developing countries seemed to keep developing without getting anywhere is rapidly changing. Globalization, the growth of the worldwide supply chain and China’s New Silk Road initiative (referred to as the BRI or Belt Road Initiative) will accelerate the process faster than most of us expect. Many emerging markets are on the point of being fully emerged. China, to put it bluntly, has already re-emerged, but countries like Thailand, Indonesia, and Bangladesh are also becoming manufacturing centres.
A more important insight for Europe and America is that Asia, as Parag Khanna defines it, is where most important economic growth will take place over the next decades, and that means that from now on it is likely to be the main focus for future investment.
Khanna, referred to by the New York Times, as one of the current foreign policy whiz kids, was born in India, where his grandfather was a life-long civil servant and diplomat. Khanna’s father initially moved the family to the United Arab Emirates and finally to the US, where Khanna received a major part of his education. Following that, he has been a regular at most of the major international conferences engaged in brainstorming on the future of the planet.
Khanna provides a fast recap of world history as seen from an Asian perspective, but it is really the numbers that make his case. The shift of major new investment towards Asia is undeniable. Khanna notes that countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel, whether you consider them part of the Asian mix or not, are focusing the lion’s share of their investment interests on Asia. While virtually every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has reduced its trade with the United States, trade with other Asian countries has been surging.
The United States has long counted on its technological sophistication to provide continued economic dominance over everyone else, but whether US high technology will be enough to save the US economy in a changing world is far from guaranteed. China has set 2030 as the target date for surpassing the US in artificial intelligence, and it already surpasses the US in the number and quality of its super computers.
China’s consumer market can expect to dwarf both the US and Europe
Kai-Fu Lee, who at one time headed Google and then Microsoft’s operations in China and recently published an analysis of future Artificial Intelligence (AI) prospects, AI Superpowers, warns that the key to dominating AI is access to data on which to base the algorithms that drive the system. With at least 800 million Internet users in China versus 100 million in US, it does not take a great deal of imagination to see where the future lies. As a consumer market, China can also be expected to dwarf both the US and Europe.
Market domination is likely to influence global culture as well. Until now, the US and Europe have pushed western notions of individual liberty, the rule of law, freedom of movement and a Western vision of human rights. The Chinese are clearly more authoritarian. Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte has gone even further and authorized murder of suspected drug dealers and gangsters. Khanna points out that in the future, democracy – at least as far as one-person, one vote – itself may be in question. The Chinese don’t like their government, he says, but they trust it. What they want is concrete results concerning safety, a functional economy and living conditions. To obtain that many people are willing to sacrifice a certain amount of personal expression to have a secure environment.
The chaos of the Trump administration and Britain’s government paralysis over Brexit have raised serious questions about the wisdom of crowds, especially when they seem unwilling to do the kind of research necessary to understand the trend towards increasingly complex globalization. Khanna suggests that government of the future may more closely resemble Plato’s idea of a benevolent philosopher king, or translated into modern terms, a technocracy overseen by elected officials.
In the final analysis, Khanna’s underlying message is to wake up and be aware that major changes are taking place. A new blueprint for the global economy and consequently the world is taking shape. The age of superpower, or even multipolar hegemonies, dominating the planet may eventually be replaced by a more diverse assortment of formerly developing countries coming on line with their own ideas about what really works.
Their vision is likely to be quite different from the one inherited from the after effects of 19th century colonialism. In short, the emerging markets may finally be emerging. Welcome to the Wild East.
Parag Khanna seems intent on following his own advice. After years of traveling the world and several books, he has rebased himself to Singapore, the backdrop for ‘crazy rich Asians’. His book Is a sobering read for those Europeans and Americans who hope to shore up an aged and faltering system, but even more, it is an important read for any of us to understand the future as Khanna sees it, as well as the economic and social changes that Khanna predicts are certain to shape it.
Journalist and author William Dowell is Global Geneva’s Americas Editor based in Philadelphia. He has covered global issues ranging from Southeast Asia to North Africa for TIME, ABC News and other media.