In the end, mainland insurance monolith China Life Insurance decided not to put up its hand for the Asian operations of bailed-out American International Group (AIG). A China Life representative said on the weekend that due to the company's 'own arrangements', it was not putting in a bid. If China Life had gone ahead and bought the assets, it would have been a meeting of what Stephan Binder and Joseph Luc Ngai describe as one of the most valuable life companies by market capitalisation in the world and a 'pioneering' multinational that has long demonstrated the greatest commitment to the region. The asset sale coincides with a series of evolutionary shifts in the life insurance markets within China and across the region, each of which are engagingly detailed in Binder and Ngai's Life Insurance in Asia - Winning in the Next Decade. The book rests on the foundation that Asia will be the driver of global growth over the next decade, as it maintains its fast-track expansion, more people join the middle class, more multinationals try to establish their presence in the region and consumers develop ever-distinct needs. The challenge will be to reach and meet the needs of many middle-class customers in second and third-tier cities, many of whom will have the means to buy insurance for the first time. This will mean a shift away from the massive agent sales forces that have enabled insurers to stake claims through sheer numbers to more professional sellers trying to make an impact through quality products and advice. The stress will be on value-adding, particularly in bancassurance where banks will need to move away from the grab-the-low-hanging-fruit approach to more sophisticated policies and tie-ups with insurers. Binder and Ngai say China and India will be the source of much development in the next 10 years, with the mainland the 'most important growth story in the life insurance world'. In China, about 70 million households are set to become middle class over the next five years and dozens of life insurers are staking claims. However, there are still regulatory barriers and the cost of competition, especially for new entrants, is rising. Caps remain on foreign equity shares in joint ventures and some complex regulatory procedures inhibit geographic expansion. The Big Three - China Life, Ping An Insurance (Group) and China Pacific Insurance (Group) - dominate the field but their strength is waning. According to Binder and Ngai, the trio had 95 per cent of the mainland market in 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organisation and just 70 per cent in 2007. Their share has declined under pressure from new entrants and the organisational complications of managing a huge agent workforce. But irrespective of whether firms are bit, major or foreign players, all will have to deal with consumer diversity, an acute shortage of top-flight recruits and the need to improve agent productivity. The keys will be building sustainable distribution channels and maintaining a long-term view.