Here’s another angle at the changing world order. Economics and political commentators around the world have talked about the so called ‘Asian Century’, implying Asia will dominate the global economy and hence influence the world order. In this piece, Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at the FT, debunks the myth of the Asian century, not because he doubts the power of the Asian economies but more because there is nothing unifyingly Asian about it.

“Geographically, Asia is no more a continent than is Europe. “Asia” itself is not even an Asian idea: Europeans invented it. Asians did not conceive of themselves as being part of a single continental entity. The region is too vast and diverse for that to have been possible. It still is. What is happening is rather a global rebalancing, as the historically brief, but world-changing, domination over humanity of Europe and its colonial progeny dwindles away. A multipolar and messy world will replace it. Will “Asia” make up a huge part of this? Certainly. China and India will be actors. But Asia is rather an arena than an actor.”

He then reminds us about how the dominance of Europe and its colonial offshoots (America, Canada, Australia) is a recent phenomenon in the context of civilisational history.

“…only in the past few centuries did economic, technological and military change give Europe and its offshoots domination. The distinction between Europe and Asia became real in terms of military conquests and extraordinary gaps in wealth. The late Angus Maddison argued that, in 1820, the real gross domestic product per head of western Europe was a little over double that of east Asia. By 1950, the ratio had soared to 6.5 times. But, by 2018 it had fallen back to just 2.4 times, almost where it was two centuries ago. In 1820, Asia generated 61 per cent of world output, while western Europe generated only 25 per cent. By 1950, the Asian share had collapsed to a mere 20 per cent, while western Europe’s had reached 26 per cent. By 2018, however, western Europe’s share was down to 15 per cent, while Asia’s had recovered all the way back to 48 per cent.”

But here’s the most important point he makes about how there are divergences among the various Asian resurgence stories:
“This “great convergence” is also not due to some uniquely “Asian” culture. The very different cultures of Asia, and especially of east and south Asia, have embraced what one might consider European notions: competitive markets, free enterprise, liberal trade, education and the goal of economic growth. Precise packages vary. They depend on the histories and political cultures of specific societies. China and India, for example, are extraordinarily different from each other. But many of these societies do share a desire for more prosperous lives. Yet this is not by any means uniquely Asian. It is universal. What is a little less so, alas, is the ability to organise societies in ways that make the achievement possible. There is no doubt that over the past decades, Asian societies, notably those of east Asia, have been hugely successful in this regard.

…. The most important point is that it is natural. The extraordinary power enjoyed by Europeans and the US, their potent progeny, is dwindling. Not surprisingly, what we call Asia, close to half of the human population and home to some of the world’s historic civilisations, is leading the change. Barring catastrophes, this is also likely to continue. The world economy’s centre of gravity is simply shifting east. Asia then will be hugely economically and politically important. But it will also have highly significant internal rivalries and difficulties of its own. There will be no collective Asian “will”, other than for societies to pursue their own paths.”

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