The rise of Asia, championed by China’s rapid growth, is unprecedented in both speed and scale. Nowadays, not only has Asia become the largest manufacturer in the world, but it is to become the largest market as well. Moreover, seven of the top ten countries in terms of foreign reserve come from Asia. With Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, and Mumbai rising to the status of international financial centers, Asia has become the net capital exporter while remains the largest recipient of foreign investment. Rapidly increasing economic strength and prowess have enabled Asian countries, especially China and India, to expand their clouts rapidly in world affairs, resulting in a shift of power from the West to the East. And the economic crisis in recent years has sped up this process.
This shift of power has raised serious concerns and anxiety over its implications. In general, there are three explanations, hence expectations, of the rise of Asia. One holds that such a rise posts a serious challenge to the established world. Specifically, a fast emerging China will lead to a clash with the hegemonic United States, resulting in a global war fighting mainly in Asia‐Pacific. The other claims that the rise of Asia vis‐à‐vis the decline of the West is irresistible, bringing an end of the Western world. The third one asserts that the rise of Asia is a myth: in addition to fundamental differences among the Asian countries in terms of ethnic‐religious tradition, economic development, political system, and geopolitical alignments in world affairs, most Asian states are besieged by pressing problems such as socio‐economic disparities, ethnic and religious conflicts, rampant corruption, poverty, energy insecurity, and a deteriorating ecosystem.
Although these views are thought‐provocative, they fail to capture the whole reality of Asia’s rise and its implications. A perceived U.S.‐China confrontation is not inevitable. Unlike the previous powers whose rises were pre‐conditioned by their global‐reach military capabilities, China (and India as well) simply does not have such military capability despite her rapid military buildup in the past decade. Thus, instead of challenging the established world system like the previous emerging powers did, China has integrated herself into this system, although this is a system based on capitalist market economy and led by democracies. Reform, not military might, has been the pre‐condition for China’s rise. Only by changing herself first can China join the world and achieve fast growth amidst globalization. As a result, China (and to a great extent India as well) has become a stakeholder of the established world order long before she is capable of challenging it. It was upon this recognition that Robert Zoellick, then Deputy Secretary of the U.S. State Department, urged China to be a “responsible stakeholder” in his speech on September 21, 2005.
Indeed, one of the most significant consequences of China’s “peaceful rise” is the irrevocable interdependence between America and China. With over three trillion U.S. Dollars in China’s foreign reserve and half of it being invested in America (mostly by buying the U.S. debt), the United States and China have virtually hijacked each other with greenbacks (which is a great progress from the days when the world peace was hijacked by nuclear warheads of the USA and the ex‐USSR). Such bilateral U.S.‐China interdependence has made stability in U.S.‐China relations critical not only to their own wellbeing but also global peace and prosperity. That is why President Obama envisions a “positive, cooperative and comprehensive US‐China relationship”; and his vision is echoed by President Hu Jintao’s statement that China seeks to build a “strategic partnership” with America. Surely there are conflict interests in the bilateral relationship, but it is hard to imagine that the two powers would go to war for a solution. The institutionalized mechanisms such as U.S.‐China strategic and economic dialogue are not just for compromise‐making, but indicate a shared desire and effort between Washington and Beijing to work together for solutions, or at least effective management, of their disputes over various issues.
The view of “the rise of Asia vis‐à‐vis the decline of the West” ignores the very fact that it is by adopting the Western values and practices that Asia has achieved fast development. Capitalism and market economy have long overwhelmed Asia; and democracy has become the political mainstream in the Asian community despite cultural and ethnic diversities. Even China’s authoritarian leadership has publicly endorsed democratic development, although they insist that it has to be achieved with “Chinese characteristics”. The Asian values, be it Neo‐Confucius entrepreneurship, openness (or inclusiveness) of Hinduist eternal laws, or Japanese team spirit, are compensative to, rather than conflicting with, the fundamentals in the Western value system. It is true that the rise of Asia will lead to redistribution of power and resources, but the process, though hardly pleasant to all the involved parties, will further integrate rather than splitting the world community. As a matter of fact, when an overwhelming global crisis was befalling us in 2008, both the emerging and established powers came together at G20 for a solution, instead of falling apart into confrontations like they did prior to the two world wars in the last century. After all, in our increasingly integrated global village where G7 shares over half of the world GDP in 2010, a lopsided rise of Asia is neither the reality nor would it be any good news to the world community, including Asia.
But the rise of Asia is no myth. Enormous cultural, economic and political diversity has not stopped or slowed down the irrevocable economic integration in Asia; and the problems of poverty, disparity, energy insecurity, and deteriorating ecosystem are exposed by, rather than originate from, fast growth. It is revealing that the “Arab Spring” has had little effect on Asia, although its triggering problems such as inflation and corruption also widely exist in the developing Asian countries. Wide‐spread hopelessness and having‐nothing‐to‐lose desperation—two necessary conditions for a massive revolution—rarely exist in Asia, where fast development has not only made more winners than losers, but also provided hopes to those who are struggling. Moreover, most governments in Asia, democratic or not, do govern. In this sense, peaceful democratic transitions of South Korea, Taiwan and to a certain extent Japan (which had remained a society of single‐party rule till 1993) have provided a more practical path for Asia’s political development.
Nevertheless, the rise of Asia does impose serious challenges to the world. First and foremost, China and India, the two leading powers in Asia, are evolving from the status‐quo to revisionist powers. As their national strength and aspiration grow, Beijing and Delhi are demanding not only more power but also compensations to their interests in international affairs (e.g., on the issues of human rights, carbon emission, financial arrangement, trade, energy, technology transitions, and maritime privileges). Differences over how, and to what extent, China and India’s increasing stakes should be compensated and, in return, how they should assume their due responsibility in global affairs have become an essential source of conflict in today’s world.
Beneath Asia’s increasing demand for power lies its growing appetite for vital resources such as energy, food, and other raw materials necessary for modernization. This forms a fundamental challenge to the world community, not necessarily because Asia’s aspiration and effort for modernization requires redistribution of resources, but because the established model to achieve this goal—modernization through industrialization—is unsustainable. Given the combined population of 3.7 billion people in Asia’s developing countries, western‐style industrialization in Asia, which means massive consumption of natural resources and rampant urbanization, would bring doomsday. In this sense, Asia and the West are in the same boat, for it is their joint mission to find an alternative path towards modernization; yet they are not in the same page on how to accomplish this mission. While the West urges the Asian countries, especially China and India, to be “responsible stakeholders” in their endeavor for modernization, the latter insists that the West must be held responsible for the environmental deficit accumulated in its own modernization process.
Increasing assertiveness of China and India further magnifies a serious concern over military buildup in Asia, which is now the largest weaponry buyer in the world. Given lingering tensions over North Korea, Taiwan, Kashmir, territory disputes in South China Sea, and Sino‐India border dispute, an arms race in Asia, fueled largely by China and India’s steady increase in military spending, has formed a serious threat to peace and stability not just in Asia but the entire world. Specifically, with her growing military capability, China tends to be more assertive in handling disputes with the outside world, as shown in Beijing’s recent approach towards territory disputes with Japan in East China Sea and other Asian countries in South China Sea. Really worrisome is not necessarily China’s growing military power, but whether the cool‐headed civilian leadership can maintain a solid control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as its hawkish generals appear to be more assertive and outspoken in recent years. Beneath this phenomenon is a situation that the growth of China’s military power is so fast that it tends to outgrow strategic thinking of the Chinese leadership. In other words, nowadays the PLA top generals are so confident that they are asking to do more than they are asked from their own perspective. Should such tendency prevail, China’s strategic thinking, hence policymaking, would be driven by capability (what China can do) rather than national interests (what China should do). And this would make China’s rise a security concern rather than a compensating opportunity to the world. After all, in the 1930s it was predominance of the gung‐ho spirited generals in Japanese and German politics, and the strategy based on military capability, that drove the two countries into state militarism.
Indeed, the most fundamental challenge caused by the rise of Asia is not its growing power and influence, but uncertainty of its on‐going transition. Fast economic growth has not just increased GDPs in Asia, but brought about profound socio‐political changes with which the Asian countries have yet to come up with a convincing way to cope. The process of modernization in Asia has enabled more and more Asians to be economically independent and socially mobile, which are unthinkable in a traditional agricultural economy. In the increasingly urbanized Asian societies, people are no longer bound to a piece of land but capable of pursuing a better life with their knowledge and skills, hence they depend more on their individual capability than on their community to make a living. As the Western history shows, individual economic independence and socio‐economic mobility give rise to demand for political participation, which preludes democratization. Although a majority of the Asian states are still under non‐democratic regimes, it is inevitable that the Asian people will rise up for political participation and democracy. But it remains uncertain how such a momentum will arrive, how it can change Asia, and ultimately, how it can impact on the world community.
China is a typical case in point. Although capitalist market economy is irrevocably prevailing in this largest emerging power, China remains under the single‐party rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While the political system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has enabled the CCP to monopolize all political power, it is increasingly incapable of maintaining effective governance in China. With rampant corruptions and growing diversity and openness of the Chinese society, the demand for political reform and participation is rising steadily, forcing the CCP leadership to adopt certain measures to improve political accountability and promote “incremental democratic transition”. However, given the sheer size of China, the massive diversity of the Chinese society, and deep‐harbored resentment against western intrusions among the Chinese people, a hasty push for democracy, especially when the external forces play a high‐profile role in such an effort, could backfire, resulting in a rise of nationalistic zeal that can help promote the hard‐liners’ agenda at the expense of reform‐minded forces—such “unintended outcomes” have been witnessed repeatedly since the Reform policy was adopted in 1978. Thus, although China’s rise has so far been peaceful and, to a large degree, conducive to global peace and development, incompatibility between China’s coercive political system and the democratic mainstream in the world community has become the essential source of conflict between China and the outside world. The rise of Asia will not arrive unless such incompatibility is overcome, and in such an effort the West still has a substantial and inalienable role to play.
1. Asia’s manufacture output account for 29% of the world total in 1990. It increased to 45% in 2009. http://unstats.un.org/unsd/snaama/dnllist.asp
2. List of countries by foreign exchange reserves, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_foreign_exchange_reserves
3. See Aaron L. Friedberg, “Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics”, in The National Interest (June 21, 2011). http://nationalinterest.org/article/hegemony‐chinese‐characteristics‐5439?page=show; and Robert Kaplan, “How We Would Fight China”, in The Atlantic (June 2005). http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/06/how‐we‐would‐fight‐china/3959/1/
4. See Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, PublicAffairs, 2008; and Martin Jacque, When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a new Global Order, The Penguin Press HC, 2009
5. See Minxin Pei, “Think Again: Asia’s Rise,” Foreign Policy (July/August 2009). http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/06/22/think_again_asias_rise.
6. Cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28nominal%29.