Asia pushes, West resists
The New Asian Hemisphere by Kishore
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
When world orders are on the cusp of change, ascendant
challengers push for acceptance as equals of dominant but
declining powers. If the latter try to stop the inevitable
and cling to status quo-preservation, conflict is likely.
The guaranteed formula to avoid a costly clash with upwardly
mobile aspirants is for custodians of the old order to
accept them rather than to squelch their progress.
At this moment in world history, China and India are pushing
for recognition and status on the global stage. They are
beyond the phase of suppression or containment by the United
States and its Western allies. Former Singaporean diplomat
Kishore Mahbubani's new book describes an untenable
situation in which Asia is growing heavier in power scales
while the West is obstinately unwilling to accede to a
bloodless transition to a fresh world order.
The author's thesis is that Western societies are
apprehensive about Asia's galloping modernization. Instead
of celebrating Asian resurgence, Westerners fear that the
undemocratic world order built to sustain their domination
will be overthrown by it. The world could be safer and less
violent if the West could learn to work with, rather than
against, Asia's renaissance.
The book opens by hailing the empowerment of hundreds of
millions of Indians and Chinese who are escaping poverty and
its impact on global productivity and creativity. To
Mahbubani, Asia is marching ahead because its teeming
denizens feel that they can finally take charge of their own
The US and the EU are reacting to the Asian surge with
counterproductive protectionist barriers and subsidies. Far
from enabling Asia's restless ambitions, Western trade
policy remains captive in the hands of producer lobbies that
wish to hide behind a wall of customs duties. Lacking the
economic robustness to compete with China and India,
trans-Atlantic economies are retreating into shells hostile
to incoming goods and foreign investment.
Arrogance about the inherent moral superiority of Western
values and selective promotion of democracy deepen the gulf
between levitating Asia and its stationary former
colonizers. Mahbubani takes the West to task for basking in
post-Cold War "End of History" triumphalism when Confucian,
Hindu and Islamic civilizations were "undergoing a revival
of cultural confidence". (p 49)
Ironically, Asia's boom is founded on "pillars of Western
wisdom" like free market economics, science-driven
technological innovation, meritocracy in handling human
capital, shunning of ideological rigidity, sanctity of
contract, property rights, and quality higher education.
Indian and Chinese self-belief that they, too, "can be
world-class" comes from judicious adaptation of these
Western elixirs of enrichment.
Yet, in spite of the "clear presence of Western values in
the rise of Asia", Western material interests sense real
losses from Asian competitiveness. (p 102) Be it in the UN
Security Council, the International Monetary Fund or the
World Bank, Western interests militate against reforms that
give proportional weight to Asian powers. Regardless of
which American administration is in power, it abuses and
instrumentalizes these multilateral institutions for narrow
The West, home to only 12% of world population, jealously
guards its control of organizations that were intended to
serve the whole of humanity. Mahbubani rips apart propaganda
in Western media outlets that participants in the annual
Group of Seven summit "are meeting global challenges, not
promoting their selfish national interests". (p 123) Newly
energized Asians are consciously deciding to disallow their
lives from being determined by Western interests.
Mahbubani asserts that a turbulent era of de-Westernization
has commenced in Asia. With most Asians disavowing former
beliefs that the West was the "most civilized part of the
world", the latter has lost appeal as an ideal in human
advancement. Chinese intellectuals, drawing on a history of
insularity, have decolonized their mind the furthest and
fastest. Accompanying China's accumulation of wealth and
economic vitality is a popular rediscovery of its glorious
cultural heritage and pride.
De-Westernization is even more drastic in the Middle East.
Hardly any Muslim society, perhaps not even Turkey, is
trying to demonstrate that it is Western in spirit. Islamic
publics view Westerners as immoral, greedy and insensitive
to the loss of Muslim lives. Mahbubani considers India to be
a bridge between the "West and the Rest". Indian thinkers do
not see the West as the custodian of the highest values, but
they also appreciate their country's historic place in
constantly admitting and absorbing foreign influences. The
author's prediction is that India's natural propensity to
keep both ears open and engage with other civilizations will
lead to equidistance between the West and the rest of the
The book's later chapters ask whether Asian states are more
competent at solving regional and global problems than the
ham-handed West. International law is in tatters due to
flagrant violation by the US and its allies. Trade
liberalization is in jeopardy as Americans and Europeans
perceive themselves as its "losers". The main roadblock to
effective action for halting global warming comes from the
US, the most profuse emitter of greenhouse gases. Chinese
and Indian per capita emissions of pollutants are far below
those of industrialized Western countries. As the West is
unprepared to bear its commensurate share of
responsibilities, the environmental crisis is deepening.
The nuclear non-proliferation regime is on shaky ground as
the five treaty-recognized nuclear weapon states have not
eliminated or even reduced their arsenals. The US and Russia
are the biggest vertical proliferators of nuclear weapons
whose reckless actions have triggered horizontal
Mahbubani wonders if Western incompetence in managing all
these colossal global concerns reflects a deeper structural
malaise, wherein Western politicians are prisoners of
inward-looking "short-termism". The EU spends more time
sorting its arcane internal arrangements when it could have
been enhancing its standing in different parts of the world.
Its partnership with Mediterranean neighbors has not had the
same impact that China's Free Trade Area with ASEAN
(Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is generating.
Europe's failure to spread in influence beyond its Christian
heartland is total.
The author's judgement is that sensible foreign policy
options are being defeated by the West's "hugely divisive
and often dysfunctional domestic political process". (p 214)
In contrast, Asian states are adopting pragmatic approaches
to regional and global problems. Despite enormous tensions,
the Sino-Japanese relationship has not degenerated to the
point of military hostilities. By means of a unique
flexibility, China is leaving large footprints in Southeast
Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Islamic world. Mahbubani
rides on China's geopolitical success to infer that "Asians
are capable of delivering a more stable world order". (p
The book concludes with a comparative analysis of which
Asian power has the qualities to take over the mantle of
global leadership from the US and the EU. China has a head
start, but its "mind is always focused on developing Chinese
civilization, not global civilization". (p 239) India is
more cosmopolitan, but it is still mired in huge economic
underdevelopment. Even if one of these two countries were
ready, a bigger hurdle preventing Asians from assuming world
leadership is obstructionism by the West (eg on
International Monetary Fund voting shares reform).
Mahbubani signs off by recommending that the West should
abandon its ethnocentric ideological baggage and allow Asia
its due place at the table. For this to happen, the US and
the EU will have to find ways of unshackling their foreign
policies from retrograde domestic pulls and pressures.
Although the author's seasoned liberal beliefs do not permit
him to gaze beyond accommodation of Asia by the West, it is
logical that violent conflict might arise if the US and EU
make no timely adjustments.
This book proves Western hypocrisy and cussedness in
practically every sphere of world politics. However, it
loses coherence by trying to merge the Muslim world with
China and India and show the whole of Asia to be on a
dynamic path. Asia is no monolith, but Mahbubani's penchant
to pit broad categories like "Asia" and "West" against each
other leads to collating a regressing and internally fraught
Islamic world with exuberant China and India. He uses the
example of glitzy Dubai to claim that Muslim societies are
keen on modernizing just like China and India. Had he picked
Bangladesh, where religious fundamentalism is at an
all-time-high, or Lebanon, which is locked in eternal
sectarian strife, the picture would not look so rosy.
The other basic weakness of Mahbubani's account is
sidestepping the China-India rivalry. Though not erring by
placing the two in the same anti-Western camp, he fails to
acknowledge the wariness with which the two Asian behemoths
eye each other. In a bid to paint China's rise as indeed
peaceful, he brushes under the carpet the strategic
competition it is involved in with India. An "Asia versus
West" story can still be credible if a "China versus India"
sub-plot is added in for nuance. Mahbubani's otherwise
enlightening book loses sight of this crucial intra-Asian
The New Asian Hemisphere. The Irresistible Shift of
Global Power to the East by Kishore Mahbubani.
PublicAffairs, New York, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-58648-466-8.
Price US$26, 314 pages.
(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.
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