A man takes a selfie in front of the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai

A man takes a selfie in front of the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai in 2020. Khanna noted that the world that young Asians know today “is not one of Western dominance but Asian ascendance”. (Photo: NOEL CELIS, AFP)

Book Review: A Cheery Optimism About Asia’s Rise and Its Future

Published

The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict and Culture in the 21st Century by Parag Khanna is about the rise of Asia, its future prospects and its complex relationship with the West. Notwithstanding occasional analytical lapses, it is an engaging read with many rich vignettes of information and interesting observations.

The ten chapters of Parag Khanna’s book, The Future is Asian, first published in early 2019, cover a broad canvas of themes like Asian history, Asia’s economic rise, the advance of “technocratic” governance in Asia, the ongoing Asianisation of Asia and the fusion of Asian ideas and cultures with those from Europe and America into a global synthesis.

This brief review cannot do justice to the expansive scope of the book and so will select certain themes for attention.

The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict and Culture in the 21st Century by Parag Khanna. Year Published: 2019

Asia and the West

The book provides a lively account of the richness of pre-Western Asian history in an early chapter. It serves as a strong reminder to both Asians — as well as Europeans and Americans — that Western domination constituted a relatively short span in the history of Asia. During much of the long pre-Western Asian history, Asian civilisations did not look up to the West because they were more advanced. Two thousand years ago, Asia’s different civilisations were already connected by commercial ties and by the fifteenth century they were diplomatically, culturally, and economically connected “stretching from Anatolia to China”. There was a flow of cultural, religious and scientific ideas across the continent and a great deal of acceptance of foreign ideas, skills and people. For example, the Tang Dynasty in China had Persian schools to train its traders to communicate with their counterparts in western Asia. It also employed bureaucrats and generals from other Asian cultures.

Western colonialism and then the Cold War fractured intra-Asian ties, but Asia has since been knitting itself back together. One important message of the book is that the era of looking up to the West from an inferior position is over as a self-confident Asia comes to its own. The world that young Asians know today “is not one of Western dominance but Asian ascendance”, the book notes.

Khanna expects Asia’s rise to continue strongly into the future. He cites a 2017 Brookings research paper that of the estimated US$30 trillion in middle class consumption growth between 2015 and 2030, only US$1 trillion is expected to come from Western economies, with much of the rest coming from the “Asian economic zone’’ (in which he includes Australia, New Zealand, parts of Russia, and West Asia). The mature economies of the West are now increasingly dependent on Asian growth while technology and knowledge flow both ways between the West and Asia. The book races almost breathlessly to describe the strides the Asian continent is making in infrastructure; connectivity; urbanisation; creation and adoption of technology; culture and the arts; and so on.

Khanna now and then pokes the West in the eye for its haughtiness and ignorance and for not understanding that Asia has risen and Western dominance is over. However, he is generous enough to acknowledge some lasting contributions of the West. Even as Asia is now rapidly Asianising itself, its past Europeanisation and Americanisation will not fade away: “Asian institutions and norms [will] take their place alongside those of the West, [and] synthesize into a fusion… that becomes a global norm. Some aspects of global Westernisation will remain central to global life … others will fade, such as the appeal of American style democracy and unsustainable consumerism.”

Governance

The book is critical of Westerners who extol, for ideological reasons or out of ignorance, liberal democracy as the only or the most consequential component of good governance in emerging economies. It argues passionately that the most important ingredients of good governance are non-corrupt and capable technocrats with the skills to build state capacity and institutions that help to achieve economic growth and provide citizens what they need most — incomes, education, public safety, health care, quality housing, good transport and infrastructure. He sees these attributes in abundance in Singapore, his place of residence, which he holds up as a model of “technocratic” governance: “

According to Khanna, the United States is not viewed as the West’s leading model of good governance because of its deep inequalities, the fall in the medium incomes, and deterioration in areas like health care, public safety and education. Khanna seems to assign the blame for this state of affairs to “too much politics” and political gridlock which prevent meaningful solutions to problems.

The book argues that more and more Asian countries are trying to emulate Singapore’s approach to governance. It describes how Singapore imparts its model to other countries through dozens of Singapore-style industrial parks abroad and executive training programmes in Singaporean institutions for thousands of foreign government officials every year.

Khanna is right in dismissing the claim that the lessons of Singapore are irrelevant to other Asian states. The Singapore model has undoubtedly been influential and a source of inspiration in other Asian countries. Still, that does not mean that it will necessarily produce similar results in other countries. The quality of leaders of states varies, with Singapore having been unusually fortunate in being blessed with founding leaders of high calibre and integrity. Further, reform is more easily implemented in a small country like Singapore than in large and complex societies like Indonesia and India.

Marina Bay Sands hotel and resort and the ArtScience Museum
A view of Marina Bay Sands hotel and resort and the ArtScience Museum seen in Singapore on March 26, 2021. The Singapore governance model has been influential and a source of inspiration in other Asian countries (Photo: Roslan RAHMAN, AFP)

There may be merit in the argument that in the early stages of development, a strong illiberal state would be better suited for mobilising capital and labour behind developmental tasks. However, this would not necessarily continue to be the case when the country approaches developed status. Many of the developed high income countries today, barring some special cases, tend to be democracies with sound institutions of governance.

Still, there is much worth in Khanna’s focus on sound institutions of the state and the technocratic savvy of its managers. Without these attributes, neither democracy or lack of it nor charismatic populist leadership will bring economic and social advancement.

In Asia, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are good examples, and with Asian cultural flavours, even though Khanna is somewhat dismissive of them “for being strongly shaped by US post-war influence”. Though he sees a decline in “technocracy” in some Western liberal democracies like the United States and Britain, as a thinker who takes a long view of history, would he want to claim, just from the standpoint of 2018, that their situations are irreversible? After all, the US and other Western democracies have gone through difficult periods before, only to recover later. Or would Khanna want to deny that there are European countries as well as Australia and New Zealand that are exemplars of both liberal democracy and good technocratic governance?

Still, there is much worth in Khanna’s focus on sound institutions of the state and the technocratic savvy of its managers. Without these attributes, neither democracy or lack of it nor charismatic populist leadership will bring economic and social advancement.

Contemporary challenges

The book lacks in-depth analysis of some of Asia’s major contemporary geopolitical and economic challenges, which, if not managed successfully can seriously damage the prospects for the continent. Khanna may not see this as the mission of his book, which he may deem as providing a long view interspersed with numerous facts and interesting observations. But he does make judgments on the way which are open to criticism.

The intensifying strategic rivalry between the US and China does not seem to concern him much, but he does confidently make the observation that growing economic inter-dependence and the pragmatic disposition of leaders will prevent major conflict. Unfortunately, however, there are also many examples in history of how the pride, ambitions and fears of states and their leaders can override pragmatic good sense.

Yet elsewhere in his book, Khanna acknowledges that most of the world’s major geo-political flashpoints lie in Asia, and wars could take place. But he plays down their contemporary importance: such wars would only be blips in the long march of history — they would just be part of a process of historical evolution towards a more integrated Asia, just as Europe’s past wars and especially the Second World War helped the formation of the European Union.

He claims that in Asia’s geopolitical history “no one power’s dominance has lasted for very long before meeting sufficient resistance … to dash its hopes of eternal hegemony.” So whether it was the Mongols of earlier centuries or imperial Japan in the twentieth century or others in the future, their dominance will not be permanent. But this is no consolation to those living in the shadows of powerful states to be told that over the long-term, foreign bullying and occupations must end.

The book seems to downplay the impact of China on Asia, though China’s economic and military power will far exceed that of any other Asian power. It suggests that other Asian countries will be able to balance China. The counter-argument advanced by others, including by Singapore’s former Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew before his death in 2015, that no coalition of Asian powers will be able to balance China without the active participation of the United States is not examined. 

In “The Future is Asian”, Khanna seems to see China’s external posture, on balance, in a benign light. China, he states flatly, wants “foreign resources and markets, not foreign colonies”, and more or less leaves it at that, without addressing the concerns of many both in the West and in Asia. After all, in these times, getting a country to do your bidding can be achieved by means short of outright armed invasion or colonisation. 

For someone paranoid about the state of the world, reading it can be akin to getting a shot of racy optimism in the arm.

Or take his comment on this statement of Xi Jinping in 2014: “It is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia.” Khanna says, “As much as China’s neighbours fear its meteoric rise and ambitions, they also share Xi’s sentiment.” Do the Japanese, Indians, and Southeast Asians not want the involvement of Western countries in Asian affairs to balance China and acquire economic benefits? Further, doesn’t Xi Jinping’s statement contain seeds of exclusiveness (Asians versus Westerners) which contradict suggestions of global inclusiveness in other parts of his book?

Conclusion

For those who want to learn more about Asia’s ancient history, its contemporary rise and potential, and its engagement with the West, the book offers an enormous amount of interesting information and many useful insights. It also makes a commendable pitch for the need of more “technocracy” in governance, both in Asia and the West, and why democracy just by itself does not automatically translate into good governance and enhanced national well being

 However, some oversimplifications and controversial assertions without sufficient analytic or empirical backing can open Khanna to the charge of slovenly scholarship. To enjoy the book, he should perhaps be regarded as much a pundit and a visionary as a scholar in the usual sense of the term. Viewed in this light, the book can open up for the reader engrossing Asian vistas, both historical and contemporary, with a zestful narration. Indeed, for someone paranoid about the state of the world, reading it can be akin to getting a shot of racy optimism in the arm.



Postscript: The review of Parag Khanna’s book The Future is Asian should be read together with William Choong’s interview of Khanna on 14 April 2021. The interview shows that Khanna’s views on some of the issues discussed in this review have evolved since the book was conceived and written three to four years ago. There is now a much more realistic and balanced view of China. Also, Khanna sees no tension between democracy and technocracy: states can be both democratic and technocratic as a number of states indeed are.