The Future of Asia: Eastern Approaches

The Economist

East vs West illustration Kishore Mahbubani makes some sensible recommendations on how Asia’s growing power might be managed. But his other arguments are far less convincing

When you have spent your long diplomatic career listening to lectures by arrogant Americans and Europeans about how others should run their countries and that the West is best, it must be tempting to try to get your own back. That is what Kishore Mahbubani, who in the 1980s and 1990s was Singapore’s and probably Asia’s best-known diplomat, is doing in his new book, “The New Asian Hemisphere”.


Mr Mahbubani is now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and prefers the title of professor to ambassador, but this is no dry scholarly tome. It is an anti-Western polemic, designed to wake up Americans and Europeans by making them angry. In that goal, it will certainly be successful.

Interestingly, the author ascribes the success of Asian economies to their adoption of “seven pillars of Western wisdom”, so he does give some credit to the West. These are free-market economics; science and technology; meritocracy; pragmatism; a culture of peace; the rule of law; and education. Japan led the way in the late 19th century in realising the need to learn from the West if it was to avoid being colonised by it. South Korea and Taiwan followed in the 1960s and 1970s, along with Hong Kong and Singapore. Finally China and India saw the light in, respectively, the 1980s and 1990s. Since Asia has succeeded by emulating the West, why, asks Mr Mahbubani, is the West not celebrating?

Isn’t it? What about all those business people flocking on aircraft to India and China? Mr Mahbubani offers no evidence for his assertion that the West is unhappy about Asian success. His answer to his own question is that the West—by which he means America and western Europe, plus Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and, more controversially, Japan—has become so used to dominating and controlling the world to serve its own interests that it has ceased to recognise even that it does so. “If you deny you are in power, you cannot cede power,” he argues.

Mr Mahbubani also contrasts “Western incompetence” with “Asian competence”: the world would be better run if Asians had a bigger role, though the West, he says, may try to stop that from happening. Ultimately, the rise of Asia may force the West to cede power, but it is not going to do so gracefully. As a result, there is a serious risk of an anti-Western backlash.

The first problem with this argument is shown by Mr Mahbubani’s inclusion of Japan as a Western economy. That is not the way things felt during the 1980s, when what was meant by “the shift of power to Asia” was the rise of Japan. It also suggests that his definition of Western is really just “rich”: surely, as other Asian countries become rich, they too will become part of the rich ruling elite of the world, just as Japan did during the 1970s and 1980s. China and India are already invited as observers at the main rich-country summit, the G8, and it can only be a matter of time before they become full members.

The second problem is a bigger one. To arrive at his conclusion that the West is incompetent and Asia competent, Mr Mahbubani has to use a rather distorted view of recent history. When citing the debacle in Iraq he is, of course, shooting at a lame and sitting duck. But his other evidence is much weaker: the West’s failure to maintain the global nuclear non-proliferation regime; the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda and war in the Balkans; and the failure of the Doha round of global trade-liberalisation talks.

It is certainly lamentable that the nuclear non-proliferation regime has been crumbling. But whose fault is that? Of the four new nuclear-weapons states that have emerged in recent decades, three have been Asian—India, Pakistan and North Korea. Two of those—Pakistan and North Korea—attained their nuclear status with a technological helping hand from China, a country Mr Mahbubani rates as being run by peace-mongering geopolitical geniuses.

America and western Europe should certainly be criticised for failing to avert the terrible events in Rwanda and the Balkans. Mr Mahbubani’s argument is also, however, that Asia has been much better at keeping the peace in its region. This view can be sustained only if you ignore the recurrent conflicts between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and the civil war in Sri Lanka, as well as Asia’s closest parallel to the former Yugoslavia, which is Indonesia. Neither China nor the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Mr Mahbubani lauds as far more successful diplomatically than the European Union, did anything to prevent the bloodshed in the then East Timor as it sought to separate itself from Indonesia, nor the bloodshed in Aceh, which failed to do so. In that, Asia’s failure was just as big as that of the EU in the Balkans.

And the Doha round? A newspaper that was founded 165 years ago to campaign against farm protectionism cannot but join Mr Mahbubani in condemning the EU and America for clinging on to their farm subsidies and trade barriers, which have blocked progress in Doha. But Japan and South Korea are also big farm protectionists, and India has helped thwart Doha by its resistance to broader trade liberalisation. The blame should be as global as trade itself.

Mr Mahbubani’s Asian triumphalism is as futile and unconvincing as the Western triumphalism he deplores. That is a shame, as the recommendations he makes for how world governance should be improved are sensible: Chinese and Indian membership of the G8; an end to American and European hogging of the top jobs at the IMF and the World Bank; reform of the UN Security Council to give permanent, veto-holding status to more Asian countries. All are regularly made by Western intellectuals too, even though he claims such minds are determined to maintain the supremacy of the West.

%d bloggers like this: