Has the Asian Century Begun?
While commenting on America’s final act in Afghanistan, Chairperson of Senate of Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed said that America’s departure from Afghanistan marks the decline of America’s role as the sole superpower. The haphazard departure of the US, he said, shows the decline of the West and also the demise of Washington’s influence. “I think the American century is now coming to an end. We are seeing the beginning of the Asian century,” the senator added.
Senator Syed’s thoughts are not, at all, out of place; the fast-paced developments during the past few months, e.g. US withdrawal from Afghanistan, its waning role in the Middle East, growing Russia-China alliance, China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, show that what some called the “American century” is now turning into an “Asian century”.
However, here arises the most pertinent question: “Has the Asian century begun?” It simply means that Asian countries will now be the leaders of the world. In the words of former Iranian president, Dr Hassan Rouhani, “Within just a few years, the heart of the global economy will begin to beat in Asia.”
The emerging Asian economies will divert the flow of the global economy from West to East, making the 21st century an Asian century. In other words, it can be said that the superpowers so far will diminish and go into the background and be replaced by new powers. Changing the balance of power is not surprising, nor is it going to happen for the first time in the world.
The United States, practically, left the Middle East two years ago, when it stopped taking interest in the affairs of its allies. Now, it has bidden farewell to Central and West Asia as well. At the same time, China has emerged as a major and powerful economic powerhouse, and its rapid growth continues without facing any serious impediments. It is imprinting its growth from Southeast Asia to Africa. Europe is shaken by the growing Chinese economic prowess; and, so is the United States as both of them are terming China as their biggest challenge.
So, it is vividly clear that it is the century of Asia, and above all, it is the century of China. At the moment, the eyes of the whole world are focused on China. The world is seeing China rapidly becoming a superpower. The debate in intellectual circles is no longer over whether China will become a superpower, but over how long China will become one. On the other hand, China, too, is committed to restoring its grandeur and becoming a superpower. This is being debated in Chinese intellectual circles themselves and there is a section which believes that China has already become a superpower.
But it remains to be seen whether, despite these challenges, Asia’s supremacy will emerge for the first time on the world horizon in the near future. Geographically, Asia extends from the Middle East to Japan, and from Bangladesh to Tokyo. The region has already overtaken the rest of the world in the race for development, while Southeast Asia is at the forefront of global development with “Japan’s Rise”. Therefore, the development of Asia is nothing new. There is continuity, which is moving from one country to another.
There is no denying the fact that the most developed region in the world at present is Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In this region, which stretches from Bangladesh to New Zealand, economic giants like Japan and a great power like China are located. This remarkable development in the region took place in a period of only sixty years — an economic miracle, indeed. The small countries that were considered the most backward after World War II are, today, the examples of global development, and many of them have become world leaders in the economic domain.
South Korea is one such country; it was one of the poorest regions in the world only seventy years ago. Fishing with nets was the main occupation of the locals but then “Miracle on the Han River” took place and this country is now an epitome of fast progress. Its infrastructure is so strong that in the capital, Seoul, which is situated on the banks of two mountains and a river, you will find eight bridges ten, ten miles long tunnels, connecting the two parts of the river. Trains and ordinary vehicles ply on them to make movement faster. Markets are teeming with buyers and happy faces can be seen everywhere.
Southeast Asian countries have been enslaved by various powers for centuries and most of them gained independence only seventy years ago – after the World War II. These include islands like Singapore with a population of 5.5 million and Indonesia with a population of about 240 million. Taiwan (part of China but a sovereign territory), Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, Brunei Darussalam and Australia are also part of the list. Although most of these countries do not have abundant natural resources, yet they have shown remarkable performance when it comes to economic development. They are unlike the rich countries of the Middle East who suddenly discovered huge oil reserves and by utilizing the income from them, built ports, airports, roads, bridges and skyscrapers – the development we see today in this part of the world.
The major powers did not launch projects like the “Marshall Plan” or the “Belt and Road” in Southeast Asia that led to their rapid economic growth, rather they have achieved all this through their hard work, determination and visionary leadership. Although they attracted foreign investment and borrowed money from international financial institutions and rich countries, the money they received from abroad was spent well and with honesty. It can be seen in the development there today. Taking loans has become a matter of bygone days now and these countries are now lenders themselves.
In Pakistan, we feel proud that South Korea adopted our economic plan. This is true, but instead of often bragging about it, we need to take a stock of our situation and know why we failed to implement that very plan that got South Korea included among the club of developed nations. Southeast Asia is a region of interest to both China and the United States today, so much so that the latter has retreated from the Middle East and West Asia to focus on it as this is the real arena of competition with China.
Most countries in Southeast Asia consist of islands, swamps or even miles of dense forests. Heavy rains, floods and hurricanes are common. Moreover, these countries have neither oil nor abundant minerals but they have made rapid progress. Japan, which indubitably is a big driver of growth and development of this region, is a perfect example to quote in this regard as all other countries, including China, adopted its model of development to climb the ladder of success. Japan has no significant oil or gas reserves nor does it have any mineral resources, but in spite of that, it became the world’s second most powerful economic giant, after the United States, only fifteen years after the end of World War II that had turned this country into ruins.
This country surrendered to the United States in August 1945 after the cataclysmic damage caused by the dropping of two atomic bombs. At that time, areas from China to Indonesia were part of Japanese colonies – China gained independence from Japan only after its surrender. Japan also remained under US occupation for four years. Although the US troops withdrew from Japan later, it retained the US security and safety umbrella, long known as the “nuclear umbrella”. Japanese policymakers didn’t tangle themselves into the debate of deciding who the winner, or loser, was of this war. They were, rather, interested only in the development of their country and the well-being of their people. They had witnessed and borne the harrowing impact of war, so they were not ready to repeat their past mistakes. It was due to their wise policies that by 1965, Japan had become not only the world’s second biggest economic power, but also a model of development, determination and new enthusiasm for all countries in the region. It instilled in the Japanese people a spirit that changed the destiny of the region. It did not bring heaps of aid to other countries, but gave leadership and thinking that leads to development. Today, the same Japanese philosophy “unless there is economic strength, all ideas, principles and celebrations are just an excuse to please the heart,” drives the whole region, including China.
Currently, there are no poor countries in the Southeast Asian region. Their leadership is focused on achieving national goals. It is due to this Japanese effect that Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, is now an emerging power. It controls strategically important waterways from Sumatra to the Strait of Malacca, which is the main route of sea trade from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, i.e. from China to New Zealand. Rows of cargo ships can be seen there. Malaysia, which has been a role model in the development of Muslim countries for more than twenty years, is Indonesia’s neighbour. India has made successful efforts to get closer to countries in this region. But, unfortunately, we have remained out of it since the secession of Bangladesh – It may be recalled that Bangladesh has achieved the export target of US$50 billion by taking advantage of the development of the region. India and Japan have developed, under the patronage of the United States which is interested in increasing India’s economic prowess to enable it to compete with China on its behalf, close bilateral ties so much so that the prime ministers of the two countries pay reciprocal visits almost every year. Population and large markets are also important factors that make this region a strong contender to lead the 21st century.
At present, Uzbekistan is fighting Armenia and Georgia is up against Russia, while Ukraine is sandwiched between Europe and Russia. Moreover, Syria, Egypt and Iraq are mired in their own problems. Lebanon, once the Paris of the Middle East, is now a picture of devastation. The Gulf states are entangled with Syria, Yemen and Iran. The plight of African countries, especially Muslim ones, is also dire. So, the only region that has the potential to transform the dream of Asia’s century in reality is Southeast Asia and the country that will lead this revolution is China.
With its mighty Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has announced its intentions. BRI has been interpreted as a rising China, sharing its economic wealth, and the load of building the infrastructure of an Asian century, with its regional counterparts. By any measure, Asia is about to reoccupy the centre of the global economic stage. In order to be a part of this future, Pakistan will have to be cautious and it should not work to eliminate India’s minimal presence in Afghanistan under Taliban, rather the country’s policymakers should focus on the real arena where it is increasing its engagements and that is Southeast Asia.
The Writer is a member of Staff