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An Asian development model for the 21st Century: Beyond free market ideology

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In Brief

In the last decade, a series of political and economic crises have undermined the western model of free market democracy. First, the reaction of ordinary citizens to American-led wars in south-west Asia delegitimised liberal democracy. More recently, the implosion of radical free-market capitalism – with global financial speculators at the helm - triggered an unprecedented economic crisis. These crises, combined with the specter of climate change, reveal the urgent need for a new model of economic development in Asia.

Commentators have long predicted that global economic and political power will shift from the West to the Asia-Pacific region this century.


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The crises currently afflicting North America and Europe have reinforced this prediction, with China and India expected to become global superpowers.

There is, however, a misguided optimism among the Asian nationalists who downplay the interdependence between Asia and the rest of the world. Economic recession in the western countries has and will dampen growth prospects in Asia. Moreover, Asia is stricken by a crisis of imagination much like that which exists in the western countries.

It has been two decades since the end of the Cold War and Francis Fukuyama’s claim about the ‘End of History’. The past decade has revealed that free market democracy, as conceived of since the 1990s, is anything but a pinnacle of political, economic and cultural development. In fact, East Asia’s experience of systemic financial collapse in 1997 was a clear alarm signal.

A considerable body of scholarship discusses the uniqueness of Asia’s development model. Much emphasis has been placed on the grooming of powerful technocratic elites, a strong work ethic which derives from shared cultural values, and the balancing of private and public enterprise. Given the diversity of the Asian experience, some of these oft-quoted features of Asia’s development model are arguably little more than caricatures. Even if there is an ‘Asian model of development,’ such distinctions between development models are irrelevant when all are nonetheless grounded in free market ideology. This ideology must be superseded if Asia’s economic and social progress is to continue in the long term.

Even if India and China do develop rapidly in the short term, they will soon be significantly constrained by an acute global shortage of energy resources. The Copenhagen conference only scratched the surface of the sustainability problems that burden the prevailing development model. Then there is the inescapable fact that all of Asia does not have China or India’s natural endowments, economies of scale and internal markets.

In short it is imperative to start imagining the broad contours of an alternative political-economic model. The continent has the ability – both in terms of its cultural, and therefore intellectual, vibrancy as well as its vast economic capacity – to re-imagine its approach to development. The experiments being currently undertaken in Latin America by popularly elected regimes are worth considering. Among other initiatives is a regional economic integration strategy, which features an alternative continent-wide financial system. If nothing else, Asia may be able to learn what not to do if it becomes clear that the Latin American alternative will not achieve material progress in a sustainable and socially inclusive manner.

More generally the political process in many Asian states must be deepened. This will generate the debates required to evolve dynamic and innovative development strategies. The greatest challenges exist in the one-party states (China, Vietnam) and those struggling with overpowering militaries (Burma, Pakistan, Thailand), but even India’s feted democracy is not without its contradictions: 25 per cent of the state’s territory is wracked by insurgency.

Greater democratisation within Asian states and the articulation of more sustainable and equitable development strategies are two sides of the same coin. A premium should be placed on garnering intellectual input from within the Asian academy, popular media and also the diaspora, that departs from the norm. Intellectual independence and integrity are vital ingredients in the building of future Asian societies that can come to grips with the crises that we currently confront. In the first instance we need to remove the limits to our imagination and unburden ourselves of rigid ideological blinkers. This is the first step towards the building a 21st century for the peoples of Asia, and indeed of the rest of the world.

Aasim Sajjad is Assistant Professor of Political Economy at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is closely affiliated with trade unions, urban squatters associations, farmers groups and various other social movements in Pakistan.

This article is a finalist in the recent EAF Emerging Scholars competition.

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