Asia’s economic rise doesn't mean it will own the 21st century

Paul Letters says Asia's economic rise, with China and India leading the way, doesn't necessarily mean it will dominate the 21st century, especially given the other factors, such as leadership and soft power, at play

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 6:14pm

"The 21st century belongs to Asia: discuss". That was the debate for the inaugural Asian alumni event for Oxford University, recently held in Hong Kong. Oxford dons on both sides of the motion agreed on the obvious: China's military will be taken increasingly seriously and its economy, together with India's, will drive Asia's rise for some time. But, ultimately, they also agreed on the less obvious, which is far more interesting.

Arguing that the 21st century does indeed belong to Asia, Dr Linda Yueh, the BBC's chief business correspondent, suggested that in a span of 30 years, quite a lot can change. Yes, it can - meaning Asia's dominance over the next 86 years is far from guaranteed.

For starters, we can cancel out both economics and military hardware. By the middle of the century, Asia will account for more than 50 per cent of the world's gross domestic product. But although almost half of Asia's total will come from China (and one-third from India), it has been widely observed that China's high annual growth is unsustainable. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that, by 2050, GDP per capita in China will be roughly half that of the world's leading states, and in India and Indonesia, it will be about a quarter.

Asia in general is ageing, and a continued relaxation of China's one-child policy will add to the continent's top and tail demographics: several billion children and retirees will all be dependent on a dwindling proportion of people of working age. So the world economy will be driven by Asia throughout the 21st century, but it won't belong to Asia.

Yes, China's military spending is set on doubling from 2011-2015. (Russia's has tripled since 2000 and is rising ever faster.) But America's spending still dwarfs Russia's and China's combined, and the US lead in military technology and expertise is not about to disappear. Nor is the fact that, in addition to Nato, America gains support through a series of bilateral military alliances. The US has military commitments with 60 nations, who account for 75 per cent of the world's military spending.

Conversely, China doesn't seek global hegemony and doesn't want to risk major war through an entanglement of obligating alliances; its one military ally, North Korea, is hard enough work. In any event, it doesn't much matter if you're the world's top military power or second or third on the list: the prospect of mutually assured destruction nullifies the possibility of direct confrontation. What matters more is global reach: China is better placed geographically, but the US has the benefit of military bases hosted by its far-flung allies.

So we must look beyond the military and economic. Lord Pattern, former Hong Kong governor, Oxford University chancellor and chairman of the debate, threw an idealistic argument against the wind. He suggested that the 21st century will be more about ideas than one nation or one continent - ideas such as sustainable and inclusive development. However, the politics of identity will continue to cast such admirable notions aside: nationalism is going nowhere.

If Asia is to dominate, its nations will have to lead the world on problems such as climate change, nuclear proliferation and failed states. But China isn't seeking to dominate global issues and generally prefers to abstain or veto rather than lead. And we can be sure Beijing will block any suggestion by any fellow Asian nation to project itself above China on the world stage.

Despite a futile attempt by Professor Rana Mitter to acclaim a global preference for dim sum over hamburgers, even the debate team speaking for the motion conceded that China was not about to overtake Western soft power. For example, whereas Chinese brands are expanding in the developing world, they are too often mistrusted - if known at all - in richer nations. Indeed, in the developed world, China is far from Asia's strongest contender in soft power: from electronic goods and vehicles, to manga cartoons and pop music, Japan and South Korea are well ahead. Culturally, France and Italy punch above their weight - and, arguably, above China's - as does Britain, whose language, music, literature and sport are entrenched within much of the world. Bring in the United States - from Apple to YouTube and everything in between - and China's soft power imprint further diminishes by comparison to the West.

American values are still protected by the institutions it created and has led since the end of the second world war, whereas China lacks both values and vision for an alternative world system. Indeed, Beijing is happy to abide by traditional rules - to the point that it gets visibly annoyed when Western powers opportunistically ignore the centuries-old Westphalian principles of non-interference.

Compared with much of Asia, including China and India, Western-style governance is generally less corrupt and more transparent.

When negotiating in the international arena, democracies bring a pluralism of ideas with them - via non-state actors from civil society, well-known multinational companies and a free media. China's political system would have to undergo revolutionary change to do likewise. Were this to occur, the nation would be shaken by civil unrest - probably civil war - and declarations of independence would follow from some peripheral regions: Xinjiang , Tibet , Inner Mongolia - and maybe Hong Kong? The China that would eventually emerge would, at best, be an unwieldy democracy - a fragile parody of India.

With or without revolutionary change for China, no Asian nation looks likely to "own" the 21st century. However, a century ago, the US was not one of the world's top two powers and thus looked unlikely to dominate the 20th century.

So perhaps we should look further down today's list, to around the position America would have occupied 100 years ago. And, on that basis, the 21st century belongs to … Russia?

Paul Letters is a political commentator and writer. See


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