The rise of China and the great power competition that it has triggered is part of a much more important story that has been largely obscured as the world struggles to come to grips with Beijing’s new influence and status.
The more significant development is the emergence of a tripolar global order, one in which China plays a role but is part of a much bigger process. The real story is “the rise of Asia” and the consequent shift in global power — or to be more precise, the failure of power to shift to the region as its wealth and potential grows.
Asia’s rise is unmistakable. The region claims more than half the world’s population, and should, this year, become home to half the world’s middle class (defined as those living in households with daily per capita incomes between $10 and $100 at 2005 purchasing power parity). A 2019 Financial Times analysis of data from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) concluded that Asian economies will be larger than the rest of the world combined in 2020, for the first time since the 19th century. (The COVID-19 pandemic may push that back, but given the global impact, it could also accelerate the transition.)
The region is central to the global economy, providing indispensable links to multinational supply chains for virtually every product. While the popular conception of Asia’s contribution to those supply chains is low-cost labor, the region is increasingly adding value at the high end of this process, providing innovation, design and specialized inputs, as well as taking an expanding share of final consumption, courtesy of that burgeoning middle class. The staggering number of ultrarich in Asia is another important development, but the growing middle class is the key.
This bigger narrative is obscured by the China story. Japan may have been eclipsed by China in 2010, but it remains the world’s third-largest economy. India was the world’s fifth-largest economy in 2019, according to conventional measures (No. 3 if purchasing power parity is used), and Indonesia, Bangladesh, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are leaping ahead, as South Korea, Thailand, Australia, Malaysia and Taiwan climb steadily higher in global ranks. Asia is the proper focus; not just China.
Economic success has not translated into influence, however. There is no way to express an “Asian” perspective on issues or mobilize the region’s expanding resources in a collective problem-solving effort. That is partly because there is no single “Asian perspective” — or agreement on what constitutes “Asia,” for that matter.
This is not the place to debate the effectiveness of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the only substantive regional organization (which is in fact a subregional institution) or the utility of “ASEAN centrality,” the operating principle that argues the group should be directing regional problem-solving. There are ample historical, political and practical reasons for this state of affairs, and doing them justice requires much more space than is available here.
Instead, let’s focus on the intellectual dimension of this problem, what is sometimes called the hegemony of Western thinking. Quite simply, much of the discussion — and indeed most of the assumptions — about power, process and order have been generated by Western thinkers and practitioners.
One expression of this is the absence of “non-Western international relations theory,” which has been explored by scholars like Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan. They argue that failure to escape this intellectual straitjacket produces biases which yield poor predictions of and explanations for non-Western behavior. Canadian scholar and U.N. official Robert Cox insisted that “theory is always for someone and for some purpose,” which suggests that there is a nefarious purpose behind this absence — perhaps the continued disenfranchisement of non-Western scholars.
Without going that far, it should be clear that failure to understand this logic contributes to the marginalization of Asia since the region, its thinkers and policy practitioners can’t be taken seriously when they don’t act “as they should.”
One expression of this phenomenon occurs in assessments of how countries are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically a distinction is made on largely Western terms that pits the response of liberal, democratic governments of the West against the illiberal authoritarians of Asia. That glosses over a different explanation that contrasts the individual freedoms of the West with the greater sense of responsibility to the group in Asian societies. It’s a crude formulation, but the point should be clear: Framing matters in Asian perspectives haven’t been given their due.
The intellectual landscape isn’t completely barren. Scholarship is emerging. For example, University of Southern California professor David Kang has tried to counter this tendency by exploring Asia’s historical inclination to bandwagon with rather than balance against China: The Western canon suggests the latter is to be expected.
Asia has its own journals of international relations theory: International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, launched in 2000, is based in Japan, and the Chinese Journal of International Politics, begun in 2006, is based at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. They complement International Studies, which has been published since 1959 by Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
To help fill this gap, I propose the creation of a new journal of ideas for Asian scholars and thinkers. This wouldn’t be an academic or scholarly journal; rather it would be a general publication that identifies and explores accessible and popular ideas generated by Asian writers and intellectuals. Rough analogues might be the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books (without the emphasis on book reviews).
It would find writing throughout the region that is new, vibrant and deserving of a wider audience, and translate it — given its ubiquity and dominance, it makes the most sense to publish in English. While there are many details to work out — creating an editorial board and preserving its independence; finding and evaluating writing; distributing the product; paying for what would be an expensive proposition — none are insurmountable.
It is tempting to see this as a marginal endeavor, one that would benefit a small group of readers and writers. Done properly, however, this journal could become a rallying point for regional thinking, a public space for the discussion and exchange of ideas.
There is ample precedent for such optimism. During turbulent periods of national history, as in Meiji Japan or as imperial rule collapsed in China, intellectual journals flourished as activists used their pages to explore heady new ideas, and to invigorate and mobilize fellow citizens, rallying them to action. They helped identify areas of common concern and propose actions to fix them, creating a sense of shared purpose and identity in the process. In this larger endeavor, it could help forge the voice that gives Asia a say in global affairs commensurate with its rising wealth.
A journal of Asian ideas could also help democratize Asian thinking, by providing a venue for the many voices that often go unheard within the region itself. It could balance (to some degree) not only Western domination of the intellectual discourse, but also that of the loudest voices within Asia. The rise of Asia demands attention to a broader cross section of its thinkers. Too often, here as elsewhere, the discourse is often dominated by the biggest, brashest or loudest voices.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of "Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions."