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  • Aug 22, 2014
  • Updated: 3:37pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

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 paulletters.com


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Personally I hope in 21st century the world would not be dominated by any single powers. Not the U.S. EU, China, India....and the 5 permanent seats of UN security council should be removed. Every matter such as climate change that affects human beings should be solved by thorough decisions, negotiations and compromises. And every nation should respect international laws, norms and obligations.
How About
To that we add China need to emulate Hollywood and expand the CCTV to churn out more China-centric contents as well. On education, try broadening the horizon to ****www.economist.com/node/17723223, and ****www.economist.com/news/united-states/21600131-too-many-degrees-are-waste-money-return-higher-education-would-be-much-better
Ivy Leagues are essentially revolving doors, to which some already say are bubbles, one spends a king's ransom to get into college and a business school, and debt, till retirement you only make a slightly than better living wage. Now compared to those guys with no degrees at FB, MS, Gg, anomalies to work on WhatsApp for 4 years and you become instant multi-millionaire? Life is fairer for Jan Koum?
There are plenty of shortcuts in life even in the Silicon Valley, but sorry looking at your zipcodes you never ever get to know what they are. And that's the way we the 1% like to keep it!
Unless China or Asia can surpass the US in terms of academia, the latter will continue to be the most dominant force in global affairs. Academics who have visited the likes of Harvard or Yale or MIT can tell you how far behind Asia is compared to the US in terms of academic competency. A couple of years ago, one world university ranking puts HKU as 16th in the world above that of Stanford and the likes. How it managed to do that really goes beyond my imagination. Western academics may claim that China is becoming more important and that the Chinese language will soon replace English as the most important language. But this is just paying lip-service and I don't think this will happen within most of our lifetime.
How About
Replaced by Pax Americana since 1944, courtesy of the British or should we say the price for joining the Atlantic Continental War, ****www.sho.com/sho/oliver-stones-untold-history-of-the-united-states/home.
Studies on globalised trades : ****econ.sciences-po.fr/sites/default/files/file/tmayer/MMT.pdf than in fact one school of thought, was that it will lead to war. Why do you think many products have to be branded “Fair Trade” as a result of the globalization?
Stiglitz’s quite right to say China cannot copy the US debt slavery model, an interesting note that Japan and SK governments imported log stock and barrel.
Those winner-takes-all kind of attitude is now outdated --- Pax Britannica is gone forever.
Might no longer makes right (in principle at least).
Who owns what isn't important.
It only affects the initial distribution of wealth among the countries.
Through globalization, countries can specialise according to their different comparative advantages, and gain from specialization for the first time,
then voluntarily trade with each other, and gain from the exchange for the second time.
What matters is how to increase the living standard of the citizens of each of the countries.
We should strive to increase the countries' GDPs, or the amount of final goods and services that can be enjoyed by the citizens.
And maintain a peaceful world environment by all means.
That's why China's exports (and imports) are still very important --- they can't be fully replaced by the country's domestic consumption.
To quote Joseph E. Stiglitz in 'Reforming China's State-Market Balance' (Project Syndicate),
'(c)learly, there is room for growth in private consumption (in China); but embracing America's profligate materialistic life-style would be a disaster for China (and the environment for that matter).'
Define 'own', and why this is a predicate on 'Asia'? Presumably USA has owned the world since mid 21st century?
America products the new Asia must shun
a) debts and monetised-debts
b) outdated military hardware
c) drugs legit and otherwise
The last one is real interesting because that's the one the first HK hongs used to balance the trade deficits of tea with China in the 19th c.
The new Asia should delink from US-based exchanges, de-globalize, delink from the Keiretsu and Zaibatsu of the US. The world is connected but why should 2.5 Billion of the world suffers whenever Wall Street reboots itself?
Simple fact, Chinese adore anything American. Apple, Nike, American Eagle, Harvard (Xi's daughter's college), McDonalds, Kobe Bryant. And we have One Country Two Disneys. And if you happened to be in Cine Times in Times Square yesterday, a Thursday afternnon, the line up for the opening of "Captain America 2" was 30 minutes.
Your suggestion may be bold but will rock the boats of the special interests in China. We have only our greed to blame letting those ***holes in Wall Street outsmarting us.



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