It’s a Global Century, not an Asian Century

by Guy Sorman

PARIS — It is almost taken for granted nowadays that this is to be the “Asian Century,” marking an irreversible political/economic shift in global power from West to East. China has replaced Germany as the world’s leading exporter, while South Korea’s Korean Electric recently outbid Electricite de France to build three nuclear reactors in Abu Dhabi.

To be sure, Chinese trade statistics do not reflect the imports needed to assemble its exports, and the South Koreans’ reactor will use Westinghouse technology. But Asia’s success should not be undersold, especially when one considers that Asia’s governments have used the recent financial crisis wisely, as an opportunity to reinforce the free market mechanism. (South Korea, for example, simultaneously helped its poor and deregulated its labor market.) The United States and Europe have not.

Yet it is premature to proclaim an Asian Century. Perhaps the coastal areas of South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and China’s eastern seaboard share some common cultural characteristics and a similar economic strategy. But much of central and western China is mired in poverty; Indonesia belongs to a different world culturally and economically; and India is a very different Asia as well. Nor does Asia cohere politically; parts of it are democratic, other parts are ruled by despots.

Moreover, there is no “Asian” economic system: China’s state capitalism does not belong to the same category as the private capitalism practiced in Japan and Korea. India remains largely an agricultural economy, dotted with small business and service-sector dynamism.

Asia also has no decision center, nor coordinating institutions comparable to NATO or the European Union. This is important, because, whereas the West is relatively at peace with itself, Asia is riddled with actual conflicts (within and around Pakistan) and looming ones all around the South China Sea.

Indeed, were the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S. military ever to leave Asia, the threat of war would increase, heavily disrupting trade, and Asia’s economic dynamism would not survive. It is hard to believe in an Asian Century when Asia’s security depends on non-Asian security forces.

Another of Asia’s relative weaknesses comes from its poor record on innovation, a fundamental building block of prolonged economic dynamism. Chinese exports (up to now) have contained little added value and a lot of cheap manpower, and the sophisticated products that it does produce, such as smart phones, have been conceived in the West. Japan and South Korea are much more creative, but they still often improve products and services initially invented in the West.

Asia’s lagging capacity for innovation is probably rooted in its rote education: Asian students, when they have the opportunity, flock to North American and European universities. And then they stay: 80 percent of Chinese students in the U.S. do not return to China.

In many ways, Asia’s undeniable progress reflects its conversion to Western values. Capitalism, democracy, individualism, gender equality and secularism are Western notions that have been adopted in Asia.

True, there are backlashes in Asia against Westernization, and some try to promote so-called Asian values, such as the “harmony principle.” But these attempts are weakened by their underlying political motivation. The idea of harmony, for example, is a rich philosophical concept in classic Buddhism and Confucianism. It deserves better than to be dressed up in communist or despotic garb to block democratization. One also regrets that not much is done in India to keep alive the philosophy and spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, one of Asia’s few 20th-century universal thinkers.

The prophecy of an Asian Century also ignores all of Asia’s disorderly and declining nations, such as Thailand and Japan, respectively. But it cannot rely only on some local economic breakthrough without any broader cultural and strategic underpinning.

The fragility of Asia does not mean that Western domination is guaranteed: with its universities, cultural values, entertainment industry and strong military, the West keeps an edge, but maybe not forever. More probably, while we try to compare the relative power of the West and the East, we are clinging to an obsolete vocabulary. Our criteria belong to the past.

After all, there is no such thing as an autonomous “national economy” nowadays. Almost all products and services are global. The more sophisticated a product or service is, the more its national identity tends to disappear. There are no peculiarly Western or Eastern mobile phones or financial derivatives. When China buys U.S. Treasury bills, who depends on whom? Exchange generates interdependence. When Asia grows, the West does not become poorer. From now on, we progress together, or we do not progress at all.

Similarly, there is no contradiction between the West and Asia when it comes to threats to global security, like terrorism or nuclear rogue states. Pop culture is perhaps the clearest example of this universality. Korean singers are extremely popular in China. Are they Korean or American? More probably, they are global.

So we have not entered the Asian Century; we have entered the first Global Century. But global civilization is such a new phenomenon that we do not yet fully understand what is happening to each of us: We cling to old concepts in order to describe our emerging world. It may not be a better world, but it will be a very different one.

Guy Sorman, a French philosopher and economist, is author of “Economics Does Not Lie.” © 2010 Project Syndicate