Asia’s rise befalls the West

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — “When many Western observers look at China,” the former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani writes in his latest book, “The New Asian Hemisphere,” “they cannot see beyond the lack of a democratic political system. They miss the massive democratization of the human spirit that is taking place in China.”

At a time when the Chinese people have mobilized themselves to cope with the May 12 earthquake, with untold numbers volunteering to give blood, to donate money and to actually travel to devastated towns and villages to help the afflicted, it is easy to see the country’s current vibrancy. There is a new spirit abroad, different from that before Deng Xiaoping launched the country on the road of reform and openness 30 years ago.

This book is full of insights — and contradictions.

Mahbubani praises the West for Asia’s development. Asian countries progressed, he says, because they implemented seven pillars of Western wisdom: free market economics, meritocracy, pragmatism, a culture of peace, the rule of law, an emphasis on education, and a willingness to pursue advances in science and technology.

But while he says the United States has done more good for the world than any other country, he calls it an international outlaw who refuses to be bound by “the constraints of international law.”

What makes his book controversial is his assertion that “the era of Western domination has run its course,” although so far “the West has refused either to admit its domination of the world or to contemplate sharing power in a new world order. This is a prescription for eventual disaster.”

The thesis of the book is stated in its subtitle: “The irresistible shift of global power to the East.” Mahbubani says that Asia is returning to the position that it had occupied for most of the last 2,000 years, before the industrial revolution catapulted the West forward.

“In the period from A.D. 1 to 1820, as British historian Angus Madison has recorded, the two largest economies of the world were China and India,” Mahbubani notes. “The past two centuries of Western domination of world history are the exception, not the rule, during two thousand years of global history.”

Citing Goldman Sachs, Mahbubani says that by 2050 three of the four of the largest economies in the world will be Asian: China, India, the U.S. and Japan. And that, Mahbubani seems to say, is the way it ought to be. But that raises the question: Why did China and the rest of Asia fall behind the West?

Mahbubani offers a partial explanation: “We have not fully understood why the West leaped ahead. But we know some of the reasons why Asia slipped behind: a religious mind-set that spurned the material world, a lack of belief in the idea of human ‘progress,’ a natural deference to authority, and a lack of critical questioning.”

He left out one crucial factor, one identified by Deng as being responsible for China’s backwardness. That was the self-imposed isolation of the country from the outside world after the 15th century, during the Ming dynasty.

Deng said in a speech in 1984: “A closed-door policy prevents any country from developing. We suffered from isolation, and so did our forefathers. As a consequence, the country declined into poverty and ignorance.”

Since Mahbubani says he doesn’t know what it was that made the West advance, it is possible to question his conclusion that the West must decline. No one doubts that Asia will rise, but that does not necessarily imply a Western decline, other than in a relative sense.

It may be true that certain things will change, such as the current cozy arrangement whereby the World Bank is always headed by an American and the International Monetary Fund by a European, with Asians excluded.

The rise of Asia means change, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that all global power will pass from West to East. A sharing of power — and responsibilities — is a more likely, and more acceptable, outcome.

Whether one agrees with Mahbubani or not, his book is well worth reading. It is crammed with interesting information and provides an Asian perspective that is frequently missing in Western discourses on issues of global importance. And in this day and age, no such discussion is worth anything.

In 2006, China produced a 12-part documentary series on “The Rise of the Great Powers,” clearly an attempt on its part to understand the West. It is now incumbent on the West to try to understand Asia and this book will go far to meet that need.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.