home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

The World's Asian Future

Launch of Parag Khanna, The Future is Asian: Global Order in the Twenty-First Century (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019), PwC, Melbourne, 18 March 2019

Parag Khanna, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing since my days at the International Crisis Group when he was first making his way in the world, is something of a force of nature: a whirlwind of energy and industry, with an insatiable appetite for detailed information about almost everything, for big ideas about the way the world works and will in the future, for writing big books articulately synthesizing that information and those ideas – and for publicizing the product through every old and new media promotional vehicle ever invented!

Parag’ new book, The Future is Asian, compels our attention for all these reasons. Its basic themes are as big and pertinent as anything else out there: that the West’s time has come and gone; that it is being supplanted by Asia at a faster pace and more comprehensively than most people have begun to comprehend; that there is far more commonality, connectivity and coherence about the multitude of ethnically, religiously, culturally and politically diverse states that we call ‘Asia’, than is generally appreciated; and, perhaps most controversially, that the model of governance that will work best for these states, be best for their peoples – and be seen as such by most of them – will be technocratic, on the model of Singapore, rather than liberal democratic.

All this is preceded by a wonderful 35 page gallop – breathless in style and breathtaking in scope – through 15,000 years of world history from an Asian perspective, which is a salutary reminder to any even quite well-read Western reader (certainly it was to me) of how little of what was going on east of the Mediterranean all those centuries is really part of our core mental furniture in a way the Greco-Roman-Christianity-European colonization story so obviously is. This chapter, to which I for one will often return because it is such an extraordinarily useful and succinct summary, of course reinforces the author’s underlying storyline that Asia’s current emergence at the top of the global heap is not something new, just a full turn of the historical wheel.

The basic storyline of The Future is Asian is supported by a dazzling wealth of statistics and anecdote, as the author works his way through the core chapters of the book, describing the new ‘Asianization’ (following the earlier ‘Europeanization’ and ‘Americanization’) of Asia itself; the rapidly spreading Asianization of the rest of the world including Africa and Latin America; and the particular characteristics that distinguish ‘Asia-nomics’, including a focus on investment-led growth, a huge appetite for innovation, and an ever-greater bias toward new trade and investment within Asia, broadly defined, rather than the rest of the world.

A recurring theme of particular interest is that it is not China alone, as big and important as it is, which will determine Asia’s future. Parag argues that while it has taken the lead in building the new Silk Roads across the Asian continent and its maritime surrounds, China will be far from being the only player in that integration exercise; that we should not overstate China’s desire or capacity to be a regional hegemon, surrounded by kow-towing tributary states; that if it continues to overdo the barriers to trade and investment that are legitimately irritating US and European businesses at the moment, there is plenty of potential for them to go elsewhere; and that if China’s growth stumbles, there is plenty of dynamism elsewhere to maintain the momentum.

From an Australian perspective, with China looming as large as it does in our economic story and potentially in our geostrategic security one as well, I’m not quite so insouciant, but perhaps that is just assuming too short-term a perspective, something of which Parag could never be accused. He argues that Asia is rapidly returning to the centuries-old pattern of commerce and cultural exchange that thrived long before European colonialism and American dominance, and that nationalist leaders are putting aside territorial disputes in service of ever greater integration. The new Asian system now taking shape, as he describes it, is a multi-civilisational, multi-polar, order, spanning Saudi Arabia to Japan, Russia to Australia, and Turkey to Indonesia – linking five billion people through trade, finance, infrastructure and diplomatic networks that together represent 40 per cent of global GDP, where everyone is an important player and where it is in everyone’s interest to keep the peace.

As someone who has long argued passionately that Australia’s future is going to depend much more on our geography than our history, and that we should be working much harder than we have been in recent years to be, and be seen to be, a regional player than a wistful outpost of European civilization, I was delighted to see that Parag seems willing to acknowledge that we are indeed part of his Asian future, not least in the map on the cover of his book. But apart from acknowledging the current extent of our trade dependence on the region, and our ever-more-Asian changing demographic make-up, references to Australia in the text are rather few and far between.

What is said, however, is enough to make it clear that Australia, and particularly the Australian business community, is not doing nearly enough to take advantage of the enormous economic opportunities opening up with Asia’s transformation. Others certainly are: one statistic that leapt out at me from the book is that ‘there are already 1,800 German companies in Singapore, with 100 more on average adding a presence there annually’. (p.250). Parag does make it clear in the book – and even more sharply in his essay in the Australian Financial Review last month (8 February 2019) – that ‘if Australia wants to be more welcome in Asia than the UK is in Europe, it needs to swallow the hard truth that it is not the center of Asia’s solar system but merely a moon – one made of iron ore’ (p.127). It’s a message which we need to hear more, and I hope Parag further expands upon it today, and throughout his Australian tour.

One chapter in which Australia does not feature at all is Parag’s big prescriptive one on ‘Asia’s Technocratic Future’ in which he makes the case for Singapore-style governance being the most appropriate model for the whole region. Perhaps it’s just as well that we don’t feature here, because it is on the issue of technocratic governance that critics will most want to take issue with Parag, that some have already, and I gently do now.

It’s not hard to sympathise with his critique of Western liberal democracy as this has manifested itself in recent years in the United States, the UK and elsewhere in the West, where squabbling, self-interested, short-sighted and often manifestly incompetent elected political representatives have let their people down on everything from job-creation to infrastructure development to health, education and welfare services, to environmental protection, to ill-conceived and ill-fated foreign military adventures.

It is quite possible that we would have been better served in all these respects by a Singapore-style handpicked meritocracy, incorruptible, data-driven, devoted to policy rather than politics, and with enough consultative mechanisms to keep the popular temperature down.

But there is a kind of comfort, in Parag’s writing, with authoritarian structures and processes, and a downplaying of the many excesses associated with various governments he lauds – on everything from the protection of minority rights, to intolerance of political dissent, to relentlessly intrusive social surveillance, to the criminalization of homosexuality to the extra-judicial killing of suspected drug-offenders – that many readers, and not just those outside Asia (or on the Asian fringe like Australia) will not find very persuasive or compelling.

He may well be right that in Singapore and China and elsewhere that ‘people are far more interested in tangible delivery outputs than in democratic inputs for their own sake’ (p.296) and even that ‘technocracy is well suited to Asia’s more deferential cultures’ (p.298), but I can’t help believing – as I always have – that there is something more to our humanity and dignity than having our most obvious material needs efficiently met by those who govern us.

Having agency, having autonomy, being judged by what we do than what we are, having the right to choose our governors and criticize them unreservedly, having the right to live our personal lives as we wish provided we cause no harm to others – these are what makes us human, and surely can’t just be optional afterthoughts in identifying our preferred system of governance, maybe desirable but not essential. And I’m sure that it’s not just in Japan or South Korea or Taiwan or Hong Kong until recently or India or other parts of Asia – not to mention Australia – where people have been accustomed to publicly speaking in these terms that these sentiments would have traction if only people were free to utter them.

The great virtue of Parag’s book is that even if one does not agree with all his conclusions and prescriptions, he has given us plenty to argue about, and a feast of information, analysis and ideas to draw upon in doing just that. There are few issues that will more comprehensively affect all our destinies in the decades ahead than the future of Asia, and this is as comprehensive and lucid an analysis of those issues as you will read anywhere. I am delighted to be present at its Australian birth and to declare The Future is Asian duly launched.