Welcome to the Asian century

Parag Khanna argues for a new world order

'The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land." Hugh of Saint Victor.

Throughout our brief history, the trenchant endeavour of global order studies has been the business of finding out an intellectual framework to fit our understanding on the global influxes and challenges in our time -- be it of war or famine, height and dissolution of slavery, colonisation and decolonisation, effectiveness or tyranny of governments, rise or demise of planning, and of course economic growth or the boom and bust of the economy. It takes great varieties to institute the global constitution, and as analysts rightly understood, leading the order of this constitution doesn't come easily. Two centuries back, Western empires and their colonial systems stood tall in this order. Their ensuing break-ups and post war independences were superseded by the opposed ideological camp manifested in the Cold War. Afterward, we were told that it was the American era; then we left the 20th century with the maturity of it, and as many geopolitical analysts would argue now, the lethargic decline of it also.

The quest to learn "the order" of this world doesn't, however, end here. In the early half of the 21st century, all eyes have turned to Asia, and for quite a good reason, because the question of how Asian economies have been fuelling the global growth is no longer debatable. For example, 10 years ago, China surpassed Japan to become the second largest economy, after the United States. Today, in terms of GDP in PPP (purchasing power parity), China is the largest economy, with a GDP (PPP) of US$25.27 trillion.

Parag Khanna, in his fifth best-selling book, The Future Is Asian, takes this economic triumph even further. Being a geopolitical analyst, he argues that not only China is growing rapidly, the whole "Asian region" is growing in toto. The rapid pace of this growth leads to a process of Asianisation -- in economic, political, social and cultural life: the realities in which "rising incomes, technological penetration and generational change are enabling greater social and economic freedom" but these "fragile postcolonial Asian countries have no desire to adopt American-style democracy… one should not expect an increasingly liberal social culture … there is such a thing as too much freedom and that responsibility is just as important a word in healthy societies". The "Asian system" that values technocracy, steady leadership, and order and reform is emerging, in other words.

The nomenclature of Khanna's "Asia" is vast. It's a geography stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Red Sea, and half of the world's largest countries by land area, including China, Russia, India, Australia and Kazakhstan. It is also the home of most populous countries like Japan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and the Philippines. It includes wealthy countries such as Singapore and Qatar, and poorer ones such as Myanmar and Afghanistan. In other words, "Asia" in Khanna's conceptualisation combines 5 billion people altogether. And to his argument, Asianisation, moving strategically vertically and horizontally impacts us on the global scale. This decisive move translates as the new global order that all Asians agree that is worth pursuing; one in which the West should adapt itself to accommodate its civilisation, politics, culture and social norms.

To convince us, Khanna begins with the history of Asia, one from the Asian spectrum. He repeatedly argues that his narrative of Asian history differs fundamentally from the Eurocentric Western history textbooks. In fact, although he attempts to let us see that Asia was integrated long before the West came into contact, and at times had its own incomparable sui generis history with that of the West, Khanna contributes very little in this chapter as his premodern history of Asia is a narrative in which specialists of the region have long been learned and accounted for. One could argue further that this established premodern account is being subjected to deconstruction, similar to the way in which modern history is.

Khanna's long chapter on "Asia-nomics" is well written. Here, he argues lucidly that growth, depicted and measured by the American invented statistical GDP alone is no longer enough to understand the overall development of nations. The 21st century must welcome inclusive development that takes in account of "life expectancy, unemployment, median income, poverty level, inequality rate … and other factors". Khanna believes his Asia can foster and has what it takes to achieve this inclusion, despite the levels of inclusive development between first-tier countries such as Australia, Japan and New Zealand being presently still far ahead from that of third-tier countries like Afghanistan, Laos and Yemen. He writes that "as the Asian system grows together, so too, will all its members learn how to pursue inclusive growth and help one another to achieve it".

The Future Is Asian is a well written treatise on the rise of power. It is a well-argued narrative, augmented with dependable backup data. The problem of it, however, lies in its epistemological footing. The author pits Asia against the West as if they are naturally binary opposition. For example, we have disparate words that depict democracy vis-à-vis technocracy, in which Khanna argues to the superiority of the latter. Democracy, in the pen of Khanna, is left to a sorry state of liberal democracy, the system he sees as the culprit of the errors and inefficiency in policymaking and development planning. Reading it one feels that democracy is being reduced to a system of voting for irresponsible politicians, coupled with degrees of individual hedonism, ignoring centuries of trial and error in the making of it. On the contrary, Asia, in its diverse beliefs, philosophies and cultural conducts is subjected to a common ground of "community of common destiny". One has to wait and see if Khanna's Chinese mantra will spread across the mentality of its Asian neighbours.

There's an even more acute problem than that. Writing in this corner of the world, this reviewer would like to point to the other end of this Asian miracle. Aside the figures of economic growth, growing commonality of culture, and what Khanna pronounces the "actualisation of Asians", Asia does have a darker side of history. Human trafficking, wildlife trafficking, organ trafficking, child labour, deforestation and encroachment of nature plague this side of the world. Thailand is at the centre of illegal animal trafficking by being the main route in transporting endangered wildlife such as pangolins, which have mainly been smuggled out of Africa en route to Indonesia, Vietnam and eventually China, where pangolin meat is highly priced and considered haute cuisine. The 2016 Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation estimates that 25 million victims are trapped in slavery in this region, accounting for 62% of the global trade. In Southeast Asia, where the population is over 650 million combined, Thailand is the main site for human trafficking from Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Malaysia is a destination for victims from the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. Some 51% of trafficking victims in East and Southeast Asia are women, with children comprising almost a third, according to the United Nation Office on Drugs & Crimes (UNODC). Asia, as a whole, has its own house to clean before rising to claim the Asian Century.

Khanna has written a book on what and how the Asian future would be, but one begs an equally important question: why does Asia wants to lead the global order? In the short span of past decades, we witnessed foreign policy pundits and geopolitical analysts offering myriads of political forecasts -- from the end of history (end of the Cold War) in which the whole world would take up liberal democracy forms of government, to the rise of China (which the world should emulate, or otherwise witness the writing on the wall). Now we have a book on the rise of a potential new power, a book that overall, is rather convincing in its argument. Still, the question remains whether the world has enough of this masculine "order changing" game. Do we need to embrace an emerging Pax Asiana at the expense of our shared democratic and rights values? The full blown Asianisation of the world is to be avoided because before being Asian, we are being international.

  • The Future Is Asian: Global Order In The Twenty-First Century
  • Parag Khanna
  • London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
  • 359pp
  • Available at Asia Books and Kinokuniya

Sawarin Suwichakornpong can be reached via sawarinnn@yahoo.com.