Increasing focus on Asia: Tree in a forest?

Imtiaz A. Hussain   | Published: May 25, 2019 21:33:27

Asia has been in the news increasingly this century, mostly as the dominant variable of each piece of writing. Some have pushed it behind the steering-wheel of global policy-making. Kishore Mahbubani's Has the World Lost it? is an example, as too Parag Khanna's The Future is Asian. Both capture Asia nearing the mountain-top. Both also dwell upon Asia at the peak's summit. Mahbubani's The New Hemisphere and The Great Convergence, for instance, portray pictures of sharing with the rest in the flock, from the top, a two-way flow under altered circumstances. Khanna's Can the East save the West, pushes that theme in a different direction, with a sagacious twist.

There is plenty that the "West" can learn from Asia, just as Asia learned from the "West." We must never forget how the world's most influential religions are Asian: for as long as Christianity and Judaism exist, that Asian footprint will remain just as it did during the European imperial era, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the "superpower" phase of US hegemony. Though that is not Khanna's point (or example), the demographically-tilted piece of his elevates other dimensions of enormous importance: not just the psychological edge of the economically resurgent countries of what, what might be called "growth," into shaping behavioural rules and principles. Of course, China's trade dominance shows how the World Trade Organisation (WTO), built as it was upon western multilateral pillars with even China as a member, is still faltering (increasingly, one might add), just as China's authoritarian counterpart, evident in the top-down Belt Road Initiative gains ground across much of the rest of the world.

Taken to the hilt, Khanna's argument can also be extended to religion, this time to the locally resurgent Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam occupying more space and attention in the "west" than perhaps Christianity or Judaism in the "east" (or arguably, even in the "west"). Equally forceful has been family values in a way they never were in the "western" rise to the helm: though fraying, those values still revolve around a coherent institution and inherited practices that the centuries of religious wars in the "west" irreversibly uprooted (for example, the Thirty Years War from 1618, or even the Hundred Year's War from the presentation of Martin Luther's theses in 1517). Whereas the "west" supplanted everything religious and many things social for commercial gains after the 18th century industrial revolution began, the "east," extraordinarily combines both in a way that yields more coherence than efficiency: extended families still prevail extensively, chewing away much of the economic rewards of comparative advantage and growth.

True, there prevail many "shades of gray": London and New York will continue to be the bastions of "western" economic progress well into the future, and amid what is being perceived as a decline, just as Shanghai and the United Arab Emirates will typify more "western" than "eastern" grains of growth. But the points Mahbubani, Khanna, and this piece touch are not about that: they are about momentum and spelling out the drivers behind it in comparative perspectives. They bounce against a tradition of viewing global leaders through military and political prisms, and in the post-independence, post-nuclear era, economic lenses. The fault may not be in our choices, but in the stars: that is all we must measure, as if because of the enormous outflow of the English Enlightenment and the British Industrial Revolution to the rest of the, not Europe, nor America, but the entire world. Given its more stable and coherent socio-cultural underpinnings, as discussed above, Asia has ingested too much of these to entirely displace the "west."

There could be other ways to examine the planet than simply through comparative leadership contests. One was alluded to before: religion. Yet, we noted how that, too, was consumed by materialistic gains in the "west," with encroachments across the "east." By the turn of the next century, Asia could resemble much of the "west": with fewer extended families and more shopping malls than functional farmlands.

Still, something is missing. What if religion and its global reach is replaced by the environment, particularly climate-change pressures? No boundaries can enter our equations and explanations then. Rising ocean waters, and the catastrophic affects they have shown in the past few years, can lash Asian shores just as much as the American, with devastating consequences elsewhere. Where would that leave us? More specifically, where would that leave the region stealing the newsworthy show this century: Asia?

Asia would then be much like Scandinavia and Europe today: just a tree in that vast global forest, with all its burgeoning riches and rewards, much as it was for Scandinavian and European countries/ kingdoms/ empires of before, vulnerably exposed to inevitable diminution, decay, and possibly death-replete scenarios (like after World War II). If the end-of-the-21st-century prognostications are all put together, they show a lesser global terrain at the end than there was at the start. If not climatic factors, resource-depletion, chemical usurpation (for example, radiation components being stored globally ultimately breaking the shackles and entering Mother Earth territory), and over-consumption (breeding the quickly growing health problems like cancer, diabetes, and so forth), will most likely intervene.

Catalysing these would be population growth and migration. We should begin viewing these without nationalistic anchors. For example, from all the human movements of the last century, we should have a huge bi-national or multinational population segments, many of its rapidly expanding individuals with one foot in developed country (typically the "west"), the others back at home, in a relatively impoverished "eastern" locality. Mahbubani's "convergence" comes to mind, though he may not have intended this outcome, but so too the tree this piece is underlining within the global forest: beyond countries, humans will also be shaping the planet's future, but also information and communications technologies (ICTs), cyber security, and yet, of course, terrorism.

Suddenly we have a cupful of country-subordinating dynamics that might make increasingly more sense as this century progresses. If anyone current term captures these forces, it might be a "circular," not economy, but perspective. Like the circular economy, we rule where we are, but very much like Camelot, for only "one brief shining moment." Too many others and gushes even prevent us from savouring what we have and what we bestow to our children. This may be the big-picture break from the past: the eclipse of inheritance, since we have consumed just about all there is to consume, with little to leave behind. No Asian religion or family can bail us out of that jam.

Shifting policy-making eyes to check this prism out may give us an extra leash of time.

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

Independent University, Bangladesh.


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