Book Review: “The Future is Asian” — Challenging Western Ideology

By Justin Grosslight

Marshaling statistics, maps, scholarly literature, news articles, and reports, The Future is Asian cogently dramatizes the reasons behind Asia’s re-ascendance to economic, political, and cultural primacy.

The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century by Parag Khanna. Simon & Schuster, 448 pages, $18.

Working and traveling across Asia for the past several years, I often have marveled at how rapidly this region is developing. Many Asian citizens are pursuing upwardly mobile lifestyles, rapidly modernizing their homes, infrastructure, and commercial transactions. From Ho Chi Minh City to Tashkent to Doha to Singapore, cities are expanding as if they had overdosed on steroids. So when I learned of Parag Khanna’s The Future is Asian, I was anxious to read it. It turned out to be an even more engrossing volume than I had expected.

Khanna’s thesis is straightforward: the greatest economic successes of the twenty-first century will take place in Asia. In the process it will reorder the global economy, possess the world’s greatest metropolises, and utilize the world’s most advanced technologies. After being colonized by European nations in the nineteenth century and then receiving military, software, and financial assistance from America in the twentieth, Asia is now emerging as a global leader though a strategy of intracontinental conflict and cooperation. The Asian order will be led, but not dominated, by China. The new structure will rest on a shared vision of reviving the ancient Silk Roads through a spirit of cooperation and oppression. (Thankfully, Khanna acknowledges China’s brutal treatment of Uighurs and Tibetans.) America, unfortunately, will be merely a spectator.

In Khanna’s view, Asia’s rise has been propelled by single event: China’s first Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forum, which was held in Beijing in May 2017. Representatives from sixty-eight countries gathered at the event to pledge trillions of dollars in the upcoming years to promote collective cultural, infrastructure, and commercial projects. Khanna hails the BRI as “the most significant diplomatic project of the twenty-first century, the equivalent of the mid-twentieth-century founding of the United Nations and World Bank plus the Marshall Plan all rolled into one.”  A natural consequence of the BRI was increased Asian economic activity in Africa, Australia, Europe, and even Latin America, as well as a gradually syncretizing Asian culture. The Future is Asian looks at Asia’s impressive reawakening from the rejuvenating perspective of the BRI; the book also disabuses Western readers that China represents Asia, or that Western solutions will be of much use in the upcoming Asian century.

Neither the economics nor the governance of the Asian model is Western. Instead of free markets, many Asian economies have blossomed through state-managed capitalism, family enterprise, and investment-led growth (via supporting institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). This approach has allowed Asian nations to concentrate on maintaining high employment, affordable housing, inexpensive health care, and access to basic services for their citizens. Western capital may have helped East Asia grow in previous decades; now Asia increasingly invests in itself and trades in local currencies rather than US dollars. From commodities to agricultural technology to artificial intelligence and digitization, Asian economies have been booming for the past twenty years. As Asian markets have expanded and progressively privatized, they has become more self-reliant. And the West more financially dependent on them.

Supporting these goals requires the kind of unvarying governance that guarantees continuity of long-term economic planning, judicial reforms, and infrastructure projects. Khanna lauds Singapore’s meritocratic technocracy as an administrative archetype. By relying on data analysis — reinforced by public discussion — skilled and well-compensated technocrats have been able to optimize social mobility and public benefits for Singaporeans; they also have implemented policies that reflect the needs of the country’s various demographics. Though each Asian country draws on a different model for the organization of its government, a technocratic spirit informs nearly every country’s administration, and this often leads to liberalized social policies.

The admiring tone of The Future is Asian represents a trailblazing response to a generation of popular political macro-narratives. Khanna offers a solid critique of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which heralded liberal democracy as the final state of maturity in a country’s development. Written just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that popular tome hailed liberal democracy and free-market capitalism as the way forward. But American failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit, and Donald Trump’s ascent have undercut its overly optimistic thesis. Khanna’s response to Fukuyama is transparent: “The view from Asia is that history has not ended but returned.” By adopting Asian values of mixed capitalism, social conservatism, and technocratic administration, governments will be able to transcend Western failures, helping the world to evolve into a more inclusive and prosperous place. Khanna argues that nations synergize rather than clash — as in Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1996) model. The world is also far from Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat (2005) because geography and local resources matter.

Khanna’s candor is refreshing. Few authors have had the audacity to tell Western readers they “must be placed, even briefly, in the uncomfortable position of imagining what it’s like when about 5 billion Asians don’t care what they think and they have to prove their relevance to Asians rather than the reverse.” Or when he predicts that America will be relegated to the status of a “service provider” in the global marketplace. Yet, despite these stinging remarks, Khanna gives useful advice to those in the West who want to better their waning lot. Khanna advocates creating “feedback loops” to help us better understand the mutual dependencies that continue to exist between Asia and the West. And, while the West may be loath to jettison liberal democracy, Khanna advocates focusing more broadly on state competence and elevating the civic experience rather than on pure jurisprudence.  He also encourages Western scholars to engage with Asian academic literature rather than “citing one another in self-referential loops.” Taking these steps, the West may be able to better cope with current disasters, including a shrinking middle class, gun violence, race, high employment, disconnected politicians, and economic austerity.

Despite its impressive accomplishments, however, The Future is Asian misses the mark regarding some fairly important issues. For example, there’s the author’s apologetic stance on China. Khanna claims that a key goal of the BRI is for China to help other Asian nations become more autarkic.  In this view, China’s dominating presence across Asia should be regarded as benign; fears regarding Chinese hegemony are dismissed by Khanna as Western suspicion. His placidity about China’s push toward neocolonialism – if there is one – rests on past behavior: China will not seek to control the world because it is “historically not a colonial power.” Yet, ironically, Khanna argues against himself, telling us that we should “be wary of those who believe that history repeats itself.”  If history can veer in new directions, China may very well flex its muscles in the future. Fears of Chinese predominance should not be dismissed as a Western delusion.

Author Parag Khanna — his candor about the rise of Asia is refreshing.

Indeed, a suite of Asian nations is troubled by China’s commandeering behaviors. India boycotted both the First and the Second BRI forums, initially vexed by how the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project compromises its sovereignty by engaging Indian-claimed but Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Only a month after the first BRI Forum, war between both nations nearly erupted as China extended a road toward Nepal by cutting through disputed Chinese-Bhutanese territory. Fearing compromise of its Siliguri Corridor, which connects the Indian mainland to its northeastern states, India brought in troops. China has also has been pressuring Thailand to create a canal through the latter’s Kra Isthmus. While that move would expedite shipping for many nations, the canal also would sever the Thai mainland in two — and that would benefit China’s security, by sparing it the expense and trouble of policing the Malacca Straits, which are currently used for maritime commerce. Though discussions are underway, Thai officials have yet to support its construction openly. In an even more transparent move, China’s militarizing of the South China Sea has infuriated Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Khanna notes some of these troubling examples, but he downplays them.

China, along with its territorial ambitions, is also indulging in predatory lending and military expansion. Unable to repay Chinese loans for construction of its Hambantota port, Sri Lanka handed China a 70% stake in the venue and a 99-year lease on its operations.  More severe examples of wheeling-dealing plague Africa. Chinese infrastructure loans to Djibouti have increased the country’s external debt from 50% to 85% of its national GDP. Kenya and Zimbabwe’s sky high debts are not far behind. Back in Asia, fears of mounting indebtedness to China recently helped propel Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed to success. Mohamed pointed out that Chinese projects generated significant national debt without greatly benefiting the populace. Once he was elected, Mohamed corresponded with Xi Jinping, cautioning him not to increase the number of warships near Malaysian waters. Still, in Djibouti, China has established its first overseas military base. It also owns a port in Doraleh and has seized control over Dubai-based DP World’s shipping container terminal next door. Khanna claims that Chinese gunboats in Africa are not about neocolonial maneuvering — they are present largely to enforce loan repayment. Yet, regardless of whether loans can be repaid, China’s military presence does little to assuage fears that it is angling for trade control in the Indian Ocean.

China has also used subtler means to gain leverage over its neighbors – primarily through manipulating global manufacturing/supply chains. By owning more of a product’s chain, China reaps a larger portion of the profit of a product’s production. This strategy accounts for its rapid advancements in electric car production, shipbuilding, technology, and telecom industries. Furthermore, once dominant control over a chain is established, China can more readily implement its standards on the products it owns, thereby accumulating further capital.These actions, along with foreign ownership restrictions, means that China is vaulting ahead of other nations economically in the BRI. This strategy is part of China’s aim to move itself from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, something that Khanna only indirectly acknowledges. Rather than implicating China in this process, he notes merely that the country’s investment in South and Southeastern manufacturing is part of a natural “third wave” of economic development, justifiable as the Chinese population ages and consumption levels climb.  Additionally, even if China were to view itself as a potential peer of other developed nations,  this assumption conveniently overlooks that the European Union countries present at the initial BRI forum refused to sign a joint statement on trade, citing concerns over transparency in contracts and its lack of protects for environmental and social sustainability.

Moving beyond lacunae about China, I yearned for a more nuanced explanation of Khanna’s notion of the multipolar. He successfully uses this term to discriminate between cultural, economic, and policy views among Asian countries, the United States, and Europe. He notes that Asia is not homogeneous, but he only obliquely parses different ‘poles’ in Asia, overlooking differences in geography, ethnicity, and culture. If, as Khanna asserts, the goal of Asian nations is autarky, then it would be vital to understand how different Asian cultures, with their various resources, approach this goal. Take Russia, for example. Unlike China’s visionary BRI program, Russia’s energy trade with China, arms exports to India, and cyberdefense product sales to select ASEAN nations is driven by need rather than a desire for collaboration. For Russia, economic independence means molding itself as a superpower that can spar with an encroaching Europe and China – forming the Eurasian Economic Union as a trade bloc was part of this process. This is a nation that is influenced by the West, but most of its territory is in Asia and it has never been absorbed into the European sphere of influence. It uses control and fear among its economic tools. Different countries find different ways to assert self-sufficiency. Recent work by Peter Frankopan, Tom Miller, and especially Bruno Maçães bring texture and nuance to analyzing the various voices in the BRI system.

Covering a continent in one volume is impossible. Still, I had hoped for more on Central Asia — especially because Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are rapidly liberalizing their economies. In the six pages Khanna dedicates to Central Asia, he focuses on Chinese supported railroads and pipelines. He then coos at Uzbekistan’s enviable trade statistics. But he does not point out that many of the projects underway in the region do not involve China. Most notable are the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), which takes gas from Azerbaijan to Eastern Europe, and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India-Pakistan (TAPI) gas pipeline, which connects the Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan with Pakistan and India.  Other important topics are also left unmentioned, such as ongoing discussions on the legal status of the Caspian Sea as well as problems related to the evaporation of the Aral Sea. Taking up these matters would have made The Future is Asian an even richer study.

I also have concerns about how Khanna backs up his conclusions. In his chapter on Asia-nomics, for example, Khanna writes – without citation – that “China’s 400 million millenials aren’t nearly as attracted to Western brands as their parents.” He then immediately extends this claim to all of Asia, noting that,  “Asians are buying far more Asian goods” than Western ones. Yet, when discussing Pakistani consumerism twelve pages later, Khanna proclaims that “Two-thirds of the country’s 210 million people under the age of thirty… are benefiting from Western brands, from McDonald’s to Dutch Boy paint.” A similar contradiction mars his discussion on Africa.  Chapter seven begins with an observation that “Western media and economists ignore Africa.” Yet, on the very next page, Khanna observes that “stories about China’s vast African footprint, misplaced largesse, and neocolonial exploitation are piled high in Western media.”

This erratic argumentation points to a larger question: why did Khanna write this book? He is a prolific, erudite author and Managing Partner of a strategic advisory firm headquartered in Singapore.  Since he is a high-profile public intellectual, one has to wonder why Khanna lionizes Singapore and goes easy on China (the former attitude is well-supported, of course). Does he wish to curry favor with Singaporean elites? Does he, like the Australian scholars he mentions in his book, feel intimidated, worried what might happen if he is too critical of China in print?

These concerns, however, do not detract from the book’s aim; Khanna has taken on an epic subject and he brilliantly delivers the goods, for both policy wonks and for a general readership. Marshaling statistics, maps, scholarly literature, news articles, and reports, The Future is Asian cogently dramatizes the reasons behind Asia’s re-ascendance to economic, political, and cultural primacy, along with a perceptive look at how America’s blindness inevitably helped make the years to come so Asian.

Justin Grosslight is a scholar interested in examining the connections between science and business. He has published in mathematics, history, history of science, and international politics as well as vocabulary and test preparation books. Along with extensive travel, Justin has founded Manda Education, a bespoke education services provider in Southeast Asia.

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