Recent trends show what a pipe dream it is and always was
When I was a university student in the 1990s, everyone congratulated me on my choices of languages (Chinese and Japanese) and subjects (economics, politics). The 21st century, everyone agreed, was going to be the Asian century. Chinese, my uncle told me, would replace English, because there were more Chinese than English speakers. Apparently he had never heard of India and the many other countries where English is spoken. Neither that Chinese isn’t an easy lingua Franca at all, being, as it were, full of culturally specific terminology and concepts. But, Uncle Karl was not alone.
In the stock market, when everyone agrees a stock will go up, it usually goes down. So it was with the Asian century. Demographics were often cited as a factor. They are working against it. The opening of China was noted. China never opened. Democracy in Indonesia turned into Islamic fundamentalism. Thailand has a new king, but the country under him is, as Thais like to say “same same, but different”. No progress has been made in Vietnam except for stronger economic ties with certain other countries. Then there is India.
Let’s look at these one by one.
Asia is younger than the rest of the world, and older too. Countries like Japan and Taiwan are showing some of the oldest populations on the globe now. The youth of Hong Kong has been frustrated by a totalitarian superstate next door. Well, it says it’s within it’s rights to reclaim territory ceded in a treaty and legally, Beijing is probably right here. The youth of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, has been frustrated by bad jobs, Islamic tendencies, strict societal norms, a lack of foreign investment, and other factors. So no, pure population economics didn’t usher in the Asian century. In many ways, demographics are doing more harm than good.
2. Opening China
For a while it looked like the Middle Kingdom was really opening to the world. At the beginning of 2021 we find a terrifying balance sheet: re-education, work camps, forced abortions, organ trade; the list of atrocities against Muslims and Uighurs in particular have been terrifying. Dissidents continue to disappear in dismal prisons. During the COVID crisis, China welded millions in their apartments to let them starve. A mass genocide in the best Maoist tradition.
China’s leaders are decrying democracy as a Western evil. They have expelled thousands of foreign journalists. Many of them have resettled in Japan, even more in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, where rents are comparatively affordable, the people friendly, press freedom guaranteed, and the political discourse vibrant.
In fact, Taiwan is the only country in Asia with a true, albeit sometimes chaotic democracy and a free press, and the only country allowing for controlled immigration in large numbers. If you go to Taichung you are surrounded by Vietnamese for example. The is a huge Indonesian community. The indigenous population has found its voice. Scarred by decades of Chiang Kai-shek dictatorship, no country in Asia is now more tolerant.
However, all that does not amount to an Asian century.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative
As early back as 2019 some scholars sang the praise of Chinese value diplomacy.
Paragh at NSU in Singapore writes “The Belt and Road Initiative is the most significant diplomatic project of the twenty-first century, the equivalent of the mid-twentieth-century founding of the United Nations and World Bank plus the Marshall Plan all rolled into one. The crucial difference: BRI was conceived in Asia and launched in Asia and will be led by Asians. This is the story of one entire side of the planet—the Asian side—and its impact on the twenty-first-century world.” He is quoted with that view in a number of WEF publications.
What tosh! The author seems to belong to a dwindling group of scholars who actually believe the propaganda of the CCP.
The BNR turned out not be anything but a shining beacon of the Asian century — rather it is a tool to exert political control over weak countries and lure others with cheap loans to strengthen the influence of China in Central Asia and Africa. But European countries too are falling prey to Beijing. Serbia and Italy in particular have taken large sums of money and allowed the propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party. Somewhat unexpectedly, France is the home of the largest number of Confucius Institutes in Europe. Confucius Institutes are part of the CCP propaganda machine, to make sure the world sees China in a favorable light.
3. Indonesia and Malaysia
With Suharto gone, the most populous country in Asia was supposed to turn into a paradise. Instead it is a haunting nightmare for women, gays, and non-believers. It is well on the way to a government with strong Islamic tendencies. As an economic powerhouse it is a failure. A jungle of regulations, lack of productivity, but also bad infrastructure and unfavorable geography as well as lack of resources make the worlds largest Muslim country a bad choice for manufacturing.
In Malaysia, whilst not quite as bad, a similar trend towards fundamentalism is discernible. What’s more, the country is plagued by corruption in all levels of government and administration. Foreign investors report that it nay impossible to operate without constant payment of bribes.
The policies of the government favor Malays; politics and planning follow very local and narrow considerations without any greater vision. A gerontocracy is keener on looking after its own interests than the greater good.
4. Thailand and Vietnam
Two close countries, two different regimes, same outcome: stagnation. In Thai we call this “same same, but different”. That’s the same as “chabuduo” in Chinese. The monarchy even with its new king has introduced no reforms; no policies at all, when it comes to that.
Vietnam has opened somewhat and the Communist Party isn’t as visible. Thousands of Taiwanese companies produce there. But all the changes are superficial. People still leave in droves.
The other countries of Indochina, Cambodia and Laos, are basically Chinese vassal states anyway.
5. India and Japan
There is hope here. India has recently discovered a new basis of friendship with Taiwan. There is too much competition with China, too many border conflicts, (thankfully) too much indigenous pride in the virtues of democracy.
As poor as India may still be, it is the only country with the population size to match China. There are many problems to solve: manufacturing in China is easier, because a dictatorial regime and the work ethic of the Chinese appeal to exploitative business models.
The second glimmer of hope is Japan. It has such a rapidly aging population and aversion to immigration that it leads the way of innovation in many technological sectors. However, we are talking here about technology, not populace.
As for Singapore, the model police state seems to see itself more as a conference venue than part of a larger continent. It has its own racial problems, its population and surface area are tiny, and beyond dominance in certain sectors like services and banking, an excellent school system, etc. the city state is arguably a success, but not a pillar of an “Asian century”.
The cross-border institutions of Asia are almost universally either plagued by the dominance of China, or cronyism and infighting, or all three together. The financial ones are controlled by China to dole out loans, and the political ones like ASEAN haven’t achieved anything for the entire span of their existence.
The rest of the countries, like Pakistan, the Central Asian states, Mongolia, etc. are little more than footnotes. Turkey and Russia see themselves as European more than Asian. The Philippines are to this day an American outpost more than a part of an Asian heritage.
So if there is a Asian century, it’s only pillars will be India and China. And China has lost all respect after the Coronavirus crisis, suppression of dissidents, genocide of the Uighurs and slaughter and silencing of Hong Kong youths fighting for the freedom of their home.
If the world continues to stand idly by as China wreaks havoc on the world economies and our values of freedom and liberty, it may be a Chinese century and a very volatile one. An Asian century it is not.
Then Whose Century is it?
If the 21st Century belongs to anyone, it is America. But the truth, as always is more nuanced.
1. United States
With a young population, the best research institutions and universities, a vibrant, risk-friendly venture capital culture and generous immigration for talent, the U.S. will continue to dominate the world. If one country will set the tone for this century, it is the United States of America.
Despite the fears of Islamization, unfavorable demographics, and focus on conservative, risk-averse values, Europe is leading the way in many other areas, such as technology in certain sectors, research and development, and trade. With or without the idiosyncratic United Kingdom in it, Europe is a good choice when it comes to a focus for this century.
More than ever it us becoming increasingly obvious that corporations not countries are dominating the world. From Apple so Elon Musk’s SpaceX, from Amazon to Zoom, if you look at the Nasdaq 100 you will find that most of the fuel that powers the world is listed there. Corporations like Google or Microsoft are under scrutiny for their dominance already. This will only get worse, but is too intricate a subject to be sufficiently thoroughly discussed her
4. Technological solutions
If its not corporations per se that dominate this century, it is technology in general. I now have a trading and banking solution that exists only on my phone. I actually closed the traditional brick and mortar bank account I have had since childhood. If you want to wire me money you can use any of 15 methods. There is no need for me to visit my insurance company, my grocer, my publisher, hire a translator, a lawyer, a shrink, and for most things, even a doctor. Most serviced now exist only in the digital realm. That makes them vulnerable to issues of cyber security, yes, but it also makes them a dominant force in the current century. Perhaps medicine is the only real service we need. Perhaps hospitals are the only really local institution that must cater to our physical needs. After all, you can’t undergo surgery on your phone yet. Everything else … reach for that smart phone or whatever gadget comes next.
In short, the 21st century doesn’t belong to any one country or continent. It belongs to people who lead the way to a truly digital age.