The Asian Century hype: The Tower of Babel

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: July 15, 2019 21:01:04

-Reuters file photo

Bab-ilu (the "gates of heaven') was another name for Babylon. It translated as "bavel" in Hebrew, wherefrom Babel evolved. One mythological tower was built there, so tall it was said to have ascended into the heavens. To block unnecessary (or illegitimate) mortal intrusions, God, the narrative continues, turned to language. Creating many of them would leave native speakers bickering so much that trying to climb into heaven would evaporate as a goal.

The moral of that story may be very relevant to 21st century believers of an "Asian Century." Many have dabbled about a forthcoming "Asian Century". In fact, this newspaper's Scopus column itself alluded to Parag Khanna's "The future is Asian" (May 25, 2019). He elucidated many reasons why an "Asian Century" was possible. Many have made the connection that China's simultaneous growth into a global power spearheads that outcome, although Khanna stops far short of even invoking this extension: too many independent growth centres across Asia, he contends, support the "Asian Century" outcome far more realistically than any Chinese drive (such as the Belt Road Initiative or BRI, for example). Yet, this is where the Babel comparison may be most telling: too many languages (to wit, socio-cultural, socio-economic, or socio-political systems), persist for China to reach the pearly gates of any power-centric "heaven," on earth or atop any Babel tower.

Khanna does present the solid foundations of an "Asian Century." Three strands demand attention. First, the statistics behind contemporary developments support such an outcome. They already show half the world's gross domestic product (GDP) being cultivated and consumed in Asia; and indeed, within a decade or so, out of an expected $30 trillion of middle-class consumption, the $1.0 trillion Atlantic zone contribution will mark a far lower proportion than what we saw in the 20th century.

Second is demolishing the "Asian" perception in western minds. He puts it dramatically, but perhaps correctly, given the previous centuries of imperialism and a "white man's burden" outlook: from "being backward-looking, navel-gazing, and pessimistic," to becoming "forward-looking, outward-oriented, and optimistic." Material possessions and aspirations may play one part of that transformative equation, but so too diligence, intelligence, and inheritance: we must not forget how Asia, and not the Atlantic, correctly claims to possess the universally dubbed "cradle of civilisation" accolade, nor too the higher number of civilisations within Asia than in the Americas and Europe combined.

Finally, there is the dimmed version of strategic leaders. Khanna mentions how the most recent superpower, the United States, started losing its perceptual edge even after becoming the widely acclaimed single superpower, after 1989. He points to "President George W. Bush's incompetence, President Barack Obama's half-heartedness, and President Donald Trump's unpredictability." These mirror the Tower of Babel's linguistic impediment to Asia's bloating fortunes: there are too many of them to let anyone triumph, and even then, when a global vision has emerged, through, for example, Xi Jinping's BRI strategy, it cannot but depend upon too many other partners to succeed. For example, the BRI strategy is being undermined not by external threats, nor internal resistance, but the endogenous inabilities of several countries to pay back all the loans acquired from China. What keeps them from succumbing completely is the presence of the worn-out ancient suppliers, the Bretton Woods successors, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, in case of a BRI fallout: as evident with Pakistan's unfolding case, some form of a retreat from China has begun, with one of the preferred routes leading back towards the same Washington, DC, wherefrom Cold War support flowed with far fewer hassles.

In addition to BRI debt, China also faces potential rivalry from India and Russia directly should it cross any power threshold, as well as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in its immediate neighbourhood, then Australia with its more widespread partners on the global front. No "great power" in today's Babel can reproduce the original Babel tower, no matter how mythological the pathway. Babylon remains today what it always was: a mental excursion fed by extravagance.

Even less is said of the explosive, disruptive forces across Asia, especially as they relate to Babel-type expectations. On the one hand is Islam, on the other, geostrategic considerations, and if there were three hands, then the combination of both of the above.

Islam is undergoing the same transformation today Christianity experienced half a millennium ago, the conflict between faith and secularism, that is, the search for spiritual gains finding growing challenge from a similar materialistic drive. It is as much evident in reviving madrasa education under Saudi levers as it is in China's Uighur persecution. It can prompt isolated extremist actions, but can be large and costly enough to pull down the blinders, ramp the defences, and summon the soldiers, enough, for example, to dent upward economic movements. As we were also alerted to in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March this year, the Muslim monopoly of this fear-mongering for all this century has now been usurped by other faith-based or nationality-based crusades. The ride only got rougher as Asia's fortunes swelled.

If we add geostrategic considerations, we get a better sense of why the rest of the world cannot be easily convinced of an "Asian Century." On the one hand are rogue countries, with North Korea's Kim Jong-un topping the list. Many of the country's neighbours have combined against North Korean nuclear attacks. Across South Asia, more than a billion live in fear of a nuclear holocaust in the shadows of the still festering Indo-Pakistan rivalry, while Australia, less secure now as its Atlantic partner get more and more handcuffed strategically, is also elevating military considerations. On the other hand are quirks, such as the Filipino Rodrigo Duterte, a military dictator in Cambodia, or even another Thai return to junta rule.

Finally, combining both of the above are all the Mideast quarrels. From Islamic State adjoining Turkey's borders to the perennial Iran-Saudi spars, faith and politics have been the two swords indispensable from at least Mideast, but now thereby, Asian futures. Imperial contests, petroleum monopoly, and now Islam have kept Asia rocking for over a century, with the Middle East serving some sort of a pivotal point. That is unlikely to change, especially as even oil-rich Middle East countries rank among the most disadvantaged by any social, even economic, development measurement barometers, not to mention their medieval political trappings.

That is not to say Asia will not see Babel towers. They will be there, too individualised for any country to free-ride upon, and spawning more of the widening income-gap that eats away a lot of the collective welfare-gains possible.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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