Books

'The Future is Asian': 'Crazy Rich Asians' with infographics

by Nicolas Gattig

Contributing Writer

“Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world,” Napoleon once commented about China. Two centuries later, the world has seen both China and India advance to global preeminence and, as you read Parag Khanna’s new book “The Future is Asian,” an erudite account of stunning economic ascendancy, it soon becomes clear the book is describing the present.

The Future is Asian, by Parag Khanna.
448 pages
SIMON & SCHUSTER, Nonfiction.

With in-depth research, Khanna limns the 21st-century pivot toward Asia with data you may have seen elsewhere, if not with such scope and consequence. What sets this book apart is the unabashed swagger with which the author rattles off Asian achievements and rallies pan-Asian pride (think “Crazy Rich Asians” with infographics).

“Most Asians today don’t appreciate what they collectively achieved and shared in the pre-colonial world,” says Khanna, who was born in India and dedicated the book to “my five billion neighbors.”

“There needs to be a pro-Asian sentiment so Asians learn more about each other, appreciate each other and use that knowledge to see the bigger picture and mitigate tensions,” he adds.

The pride is based on real data: Asia has several of the world’s largest economies, most of the world’s foreign exchange reserves, many of the world’s largest banks and most of the world’s largest armies. From trade wars to Silicon Valley and university admissions, Asian influence seems to be everywhere. Just last month, Beijing held its second forum for the “Belt and Road” initiative — the most ambitious infrastructure investment plan in human history.

Still, Khanna asks readers not to see Asia as “China plus.” He holds that the integration of the continent — which he calls “a vast mosaic of microworlds” — makes the sum greater than its various parts. In his view, Asia is a “continental system,” similar to the European Union but without formalized rules, which will continue to mesh both culturally and economically. A new regional confidence — the combination of economic growth, geopolitical stability and technocratic pragmatism — may give rise to distinctly Asian ideas about world order.

But as the European and American centuries had their own dark sides, could a possible Asian century be derailed by similar conflicts?

“There is no evidence that the escalation of local tensions will lead to broader regional destabilization,” says Khanna. “Asia is not pre-World War I Europe — the dynamics of polarity and alliances are very different. For the past three decades, Asians have largely kept geopolitical tensions at bay, while pursuing geoeconomic alignment. Pessimists conveniently overlook the fact that diplomatic maturity has been demonstrated. We should not conflate local dynamics with the much larger unfolding reality of integration and convergence.”

Mainly, the fear of a rising Asia is fear of a muscular China. With its military buildup and global influence through economic aid, especially in African countries, the behemoth has rattled observers worldwide. But despite charges that China is using its loans to influence developing countries, Khanna denies any colonial or hegemonistic ambitions.

“We live in a world of constant scrutiny of everything China does,” he explains. “It cannot get away with the kinds of abuses the British empire did for centuries. In fact, China has experienced the kind of Western pushback in just the last three years that it took 300 years for colonies to muster against the British!”

Khanna himself is no stranger to pushback. Some Western critics see “The Future is Asian” as cheerleading that paints rather too rosy a picture. Khanna has been accused of an anti-Western bias and conflating technocratic efficiency with the authoritarianism of some Asian regimes. A sense of rivalry, especially with the U.S., does infuse parts of the book, but then Khanna is not alone in saying that schisms and populism endanger Western democracies. He rejects the idea of trading freedoms for social stability, but believes that a data-driven technocracy such as Singapore’s can guide policymaking in other countries.

“I’m actually about as ‘Western’ as it gets,” laughs Khanna, who was born in India and grew up in America and Germany and the UAE. “So much of what has made Asia successful has been following the Western playbook, and now to some degree building and innovating upon it. This is why I call for a ‘fusion of civilizations’ rather than a clash.”

Of course, a shifting of global power provokes those who have to make room. It may require concessions in the West — a rethinking of rank and updated notions of who can teach whom. For some, accepting an Asian-led order that encompasses the majority of the world may be hard, perhaps unimaginable. More than anything, however, “The Future is Asian” calls for peaceful coexistence, reflecting the longing of many Asians to be finally seen as equal with the West. In the end, Khanna insists, the future global order is no zero-sum race, no calling of winners and losers

“Fundamentally,” he says, “Asians seek not conquest but respect.”

Coronavirus banner