Retelling the Story of the Asian Century
story | Ryan Ma, Contributing Reporter
photo | Joshua Vargas, Yale-NUS Global Affairs
Dr. Parag Khanna was 12 years old when the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989. Witnessing this event from their New York home, his parents immediately took him on a plane to Berlin. There, he paid the locals five Deutsche Marks to chip away at the wall and brought back shards to distribute among his friends. It was this encounter with history that cemented his passion for international relations.
Today, Dr. Khanna is the Founder and Managing Partner of FutureMap, a consulting firm that uses data science to advise governments on economic policymaking. He is also the bestselling author of six books about geopolitics. He describes himself as a “veteran of Singapore,” and has mentored many Yale-NUS College students who have conducted research for his books. On September 5th, he returned to Yale-NUS to give a talk hosted by the Global Affairs major about his latest book titled “The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century”. At the eponymous talk, he shared some valuable insights on Asia’s rise to geopolitical significance.
“These days, when you hear the word Asia, even here in Asia, [you think of] Greater China. China equals Asia, Asia equals China,” he said. The purpose of his book is to dispel such reductionism. To do so, he re-examined the assumptions people often hold about world systems.
“We think of Europe as the only region that is a coherent system…Asia, one would never refer to as the system. It’s vague. It’s broad, it’s culturally diverse, there are no supranational institutions,” he said. Yet, what people often forget is that not only is Asia currently a system, it has also historically been a system that included the various Asian powers, along with other countries along the Silk Road.
Not only is the Asian system being rejuvenated in our time, it is also expanding. Many countries that once did not consider themselves Asian have grown more open to embracing the Asian label. Turkey is one salient example. “In the 90s and early 2000s, the big priority for Turkey was to join the European Union,” he remarked. “You don’t really hear that anymore, right?” Nor is the world’s pivot to Asia merely political; Asian countries, especially China, are also gaining the lion’s share of global economic ties. Saudi Arabia, for one, is now selling more oil to the East than to the West.
However, the story so far is mainly centered on China. “The problem is that people are living in the moment and focusing only on China,” Dr. Khanna said. “And there’s this notion out there that if China sneezes, all of Asia catches a cold; if there’s a Chinese economic slowdown, Asia is toast. That’s actually not the way Asian economics work.”
To shed light on the bigger picture, Dr. Khanna told the story of Asia’s economic revival, which began with Japan in the 1950s. “Within 30 years [after] World War Two, Japan had already become the world’s second largest economy, overtaking what was West Germany at the time,” he said. This was the first wave of Asia’s postwar economic growth.
The rise of Japan was soon followed by that of the Four Asian Tigers: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. China back then was still in the midst of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. It was only after visits to these countries – who led Asia’s second wave of growth – that China liberalized its economy and ushered in a China-centric third wave.
So what is the moral of Dr. Khanna’s story? It is that China’s rise was no virgin birth; it happened because the Asian Tigers invested heavily in it. One cannot adequately explain the third wave without considering the enabling role played by the previous two waves. “[China is] talked about today as if it’s the beginning, the middle, and the end of Asian economy, but it’s not,” he said. “Because we’re already beginning [to see] a fourth wave, right now. It’s all of these countries here, from Pakistan to India, all the way to Southeast Asia.”
For Harshil Ved ’23, who plans to major in Economics, it was the bright future of Asian economies that drew him to this talk. “I think the title itself, ‘The Future is Asian,’ was something interesting to hear,” he said. “I think [my] major takeaway was that Southeast Asia is open for business, and that the world better watch out for these countries as they make their move [onto] the global stage.”
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