‘Americans and Europeans see walls going up, but across Asia they are coming down,’ writes Parag Khanna. ‘Rather than being backward-looking, navel-gazing, and pessimistic, billions of Asians are forward-looking, outward-oriented, and optimistic.’ Khanna is prone to sweeping statements like this; vague, but also hard to disagree with. Asia’s rapid acceleration towards the front of the ‘global order’ has been perhaps the dominant trend of this century to date. Whatever other criticisms might justifiably be levied at this book, it’s hard not to concur with this.
First, we must address what exactly is covered by ‘Asia’. Khanna is somewhat generous. To him, Asia covers the entire Eurasian continent – minus the European peninsular – and sweeps all the way down to the South Pacific. It’s essentially a blanket term encapsulating Israel, New Zealand, and everything in-between. ‘It is strictly speaking a megaregion stretching from the sea of Japan to the Red Sea,’ he insists. It might seem strange, even a little offensive, to consider such vastly diverse regions of the planet as, say, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Polynesia, as all part of the same monolithic label of ‘Asia’. But it’s the approach he adopts, and therefore one we are forced to accept for the purpose of this book. In the closing chapters he muses on the difficulty of understanding Asia due to its vast diversity – perhaps this task would be a little easier if he didn’t use it as a catch-all term for every country east of the Mediterranean?
Khanna makes a valiant attempt to bring us laypeople up to speed on Asia’s background, racing through the region’s history in a single chapter, including the geopolitical uncertainties and tensions of the modern day. Don’t try to remember it all, you won’t come close. His key argument is that pre-Industrial Revolution Asia was broadly more successful and developed than its European counterpart, and that it was only good fortune and Asian complacency that allowed a gulf to emerge in recent centuries. It’s a perspective generally ignored by your typical Eurocentric timeline.
Being very tech-focused, a high-end consumer engaged by constant disruption and innovation, Khanna celebrates these qualities wherever he sees them. There’s little time afforded to more human or natural qualities or values. Perhaps predictably (he is primarily an economist) he has an obsession with markets, investments, financial trading, and appears to have little patience for anything that can’t be sold, which is a shame. This economic obsession is to the detriment of the book, as he fills pages with financial jargon instead of details about demographic and other geographic trends worth paying attention to.
Relentlessly intense and fast-paced, Khanna’s style of communication often matches the subjects he chooses to espouse, and this book is no exception. His ferocious regurgitating of facts is undeniably engaging, although there’s an ongoing uncomfortable feeling regarding what seems to be a fairly linear view on the world, as though each country is at a different stage of prosperity along the exact same path. Khanna could easily be painted as the embodiment of the jet-setting ‘elite’ we’ve all been encouraged to revolt against in recent years. While this would be a caricature, he does himself no favours when he talks blindly about the benefits of free trade deals and globalised capitalism as if the past ten years never happened, as though there wasn’t a rising backlash against this exact mindset.
Unfortunately, if our author is correct, then the future looks somewhat alarming. Not per se because the world’s economic and political axis is shifting towards Asia. It’s because it’s not the Western-style liberal democracies such as Japan and South Korea that look set to lead the region, but instead the opaque, authoritarian regimes in countries such as China, Russia and Turkey. He actually takes a much more upbeat view of this trend towards Asian technocracy than many Western commentators would; inspired by the Singapore example, he argues that these countries are rejecting the ‘failed’ obsession with popular democracy as practised by the US et al in favour of national stability, no matter the cost. The counter arguments – such as the extensive violence exhibited by Duterte and friends, the discrimination towards minorities, the lack of press freedom, just for starters – do get a mention, but they worryingly fail to damper his optimism.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that he has hit on a significant and noteworthy global shift. ‘The time has come to approach Asian dynamics from the inside out,’ he writes. ‘Westerners must be placed... in the uncomfortable position of imagining what it’s like when about five billion Asians don’t care what they think and they have to prove their relevance to Asians rather than the reverse.’ Like it or not, it’s hard to oppose the idea that the future truly is Asian.
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