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Asia's century

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In Brief

The idea that the world has entered the Asian century has wide and credible currency.

Its foundation, of course, lies in the rise of Chinese and Indian economic power and the integration of the East Asian economy that has accompanied China's spectacular growth.


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In Australia the government has commissioned a White Paper which promises a major and comprehensive review of economic and strategic change in Asia and its implications and the opportunities it opens up for Australia. This interest, and the need to think about how best to manage the Asian century, is not unique to Australia.

The shifts in the structure of global economic power that are under way are bigger shifts in the locus of global output than those recorded after the industrial revolution, and they are taking place in much shorter timeframes. These are changes of type not just of degree.

When announcing the Australian White Paper, Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, observed that ‘On the eve of Australia’s long run of economic growth, before our two decades of reform-driven prosperity, [Australia’s] and China’s were economies of roughly comparable size in market exchange rate terms. Now, remember Australia’s been growing for twenty years since and yet on the same basis China’s economy is today close to four and half times bigger than ours. In twenty years, China and India have grown so fast they’ve almost tripled their share of the global economy — and increased their absolute economic size almost nine-fold. Just two countries, which have grown from less than a tenth of the global economy to almost a fifth, in just two decades — and which, over the next two decades, are projected to grow from a fifth to a third. This incredible economic growth in our region is driving economic and strategic change in our world too’.

Comprehending the scale and importance of what is going on in Asia, both economically and politically, and its already palpable impact on our region and on the structure of world economic and political power is no easy task.

Over the coming months around forty distinguished Asian and Australian analysts will comment through East Asia Forum on different dimensions of the challenge of the Asian century. This series provides a chance to engage leading regional thinkers in the assessment of the issues we face. It will be helpful to Australia as it tries to understand the impact of these changes on its future and hopefully it will be helpful also to our partners in the region.

We begin the series this week with Hugh White’s reflections on the implications of Asia’s rising economic power for the political-security environment. White has catalysed thinking on this question over the past few years, arguing that America and its friends and allies in Asia confront a new strategic choice. Will America, he has asked, agree to negotiate a new order with China that gives Beijing a bigger role and allows it to exercise more influence than it has for a long time? Or will it refuse to negotiate, and insist on preserving the old US-led order unchanged? In Washington last week, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, appeared to accept America’s role in Asia so long as America accepts China’s role. The implications of how this choice is made will shape Asian political and security affairs for decades.

‘We need to recognise and acknowledge that the economic shift to Asia does indeed have profound implications for the balance of strategic power as well’ White argues. ‘China is now strong enough to contest America’s leadership in Asia, and is plainly doing so. That means that the old days of uncontested American primacy, and the Asian order that has been built on this foundation, are already history. Our choices are about what kind of order we would like to see in its place’.

The commencement of our Asia century series is also the occasion on which to announce the first three inaugural East Asia Forum Fellows: Professor Yiping Huang, of Peking, the ANU and Barclays, Hong Kong; Mr Sourabh Gupta, of Samuels International Associates Inc., Washington; and Professor Hugh White, of the Australian National University, Canberra.

EAF Fellows are honoured for their distinguished contribution to the discussion of Asian affairs. Professor Huang has been a leader in the discussion of developments in the Chinese economy and economic policy and his analysis on EAF and elsewhere is widely acknowledged to be at the cutting edge of commentary on Chinese economic affairs. Mr Gupta has been an insightful contributor to discussion of Indian, South Asian affairs as well as contributions on Asia Pacific affairs, and the implications of India’s economic rise and its strategic situation in Asia. Professor White has been at the forefront of thinking about the impact of the rise of Chinese and Asian economic power on political and security relations with the United States and the political and security order in Asia and the Pacific. His controversial but path-breaking analysis, including on EAF over the past few years to which he adds in this week’s feature, has stimulated global debate about strategies for managing the political changes taking place in Asia and the Pacific. Mr Gupta and Professor Huang will also contribute to the Asia century series in coming weeks.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

One response to “Asia’s century”

  1. China is unlikely to want unseat US as the first among equal simply because China is more comfortable with collectivity. No one can visualize what a China-led world will look like as it will not happen. China more than any other country realises that she is never in the position to be the first among equals just as Russia, Germany, France or India understand that all of them have limitations even with the creation of EU. As US becomes a more polarised (notwithstanding present social inequality) society her credentials as the first among equals grow ever more. Homogeneous societies lack such credentials and consequently that of the leadership in a polarised world too. It is just too much to ask of China even if she is to be elected to lead the world as the number one. There will be no end to squabbling with India, uneasiness from Russia, unceasing criticism from EU on qualitymatters and all round competition from the US etc. Not everyone is comfortable with power, some fear.

    The question is what the US wants to believe and what others want to believe. Australia can go head on banging China under the auspices of US but that is probably an incorrect approach. Maybe the first thing the Australians have to do is to decide her regionality i.e. whether she is an Asian Republic or not. Of course Australians can sum thousands of reasons to say “Nay” but is that the reality? Only when one is in line with the reality can one find the correct real solution.

    As to the “Asian Century”, there won’t be one. Perhaps it is more appropriate to term a “Polarised Century”, given that China will not unseat US as the boss but will want to be heard and be part of the game albeit with some rules suitable to accomodate her participation. That is perhaps what both China and India have in mind not the US propagated “Asian Century”. Asians do not need an “Asian Century”. What Asians need is peace and peace cannot be achieved unilaterally to the exclusion of others. Africa, Carribean-Latin America and Europe all have to be at peace too. Right now the only question is whether World Peace is ever in the America and her military industrial complex’s interest or not.

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