Not so long ago, it was fashionable, even popular, to talk about the “Asian Century.” The early years of this millennium were characterized by an almost gushing infatuation and admiration for all things Asian. Universities formed classes to examine the “rise of Asia” while think-tanks and nongovernmental organizations equipped specialist teams “to understand Asia.” From banking to broadcasting, companies swiveled their sights and set their eyes on the East.
This is understandable. The concept of the Asian Century provided a narrative when the world needed one. The Cold War was over. The US’ unipolar moment had subsided. The 21st century would belong to the great civilizations of Asia.
At the time, the awe was justified; large swaths of the continent were experiencing substantial economic and societal reconfiguration. Reform seemed near and those tensions, which had marred regional politics for decades, seemed increasingly distant. The idea of an Asian Century became a lens through which one could comprehend changes in the world.
Of course, the concept as an analytical tool is deeply flawed and academics have been quick to point out its many holes. It is impossible to discuss Asia as an amorphous homogenous entity because Asia, as it is understood in the public imagination, does not really exist.
In reality, it is a plethora of different things; a myriad of cultures, identities, ethnicities and borders, which cannot be categorized using such broad strokes. In this sense, the Asian Century is an orientalist ideal — a misconceived Western-centric notion, which is used to bracket the supposed incomprehensible diversity. Talk of the riches to be found in Shanghai or the unexploited markets in Myanmar were undoubtedly also popular topics in the colonial heyday.
Equally, the idea that Asia is rising is also myopic to anyone with a broad knowledge of history.
Finally, it seems impossible to promulgate such an idea when the people of the region, however one chooses to define it, are not only hesitant to equate economic growth with global responsibility, but reluctant to admit that growth should lead to greater global responsibility.
China, whose stampeding economy stoked the contemporary interest in Asia, is a case in point. Although now the world’s second-largest economy, China is unwilling to match its economic prowess with global leadership duties and is rather content to be in the passenger seat when it comes to driving non-economic issues of global importance.
It is unfortunate that the strategic and economic realities facing Asian countries are quickly becoming as problematic as the terminology once used to describe them. Indeed, if the current trajectory remains undisrupted, it seems that Asia’s century will be nasty, brutish and short.
The lessons of history loom large and it would be very wise for Asian countries to cast more than a cursory glance at early 20th-century European history.
The international relations of Asian nations were never harmonious. In fact, as a result of the burdens of history and political ideologies, they were often quite bitter. However, for a fleeting moment at the start of this century it seemed like the quest for economic prosperity would trump the lingering feuds, which had always festered just below the surface. Steps toward reform in authoritarian states and the solidification of pluralistic politics in democratic nations gave the notion even greater hope.