The Making of Modern Asia

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The 21st century has opened and will close with two puzzles about the rise of Asia. Today, the puzzle is why Asian societies, long in the doldrums, are now successful. At the century's close, by contrast, historians will want to know why Asian societies succeeded so late, taking centuries to catch up with a Europe that they had outperformed for millenniums. Neither puzzle is—or will be—easy to solve.As a child of a poor Indian immigrant family growing up in the 1950s in the British colony of Singapore, neither I nor my classmates could have even conceived the notion that an Asian century would begin in our lifetimes. We believed that London was the center of the universe; one friend used to tell me that the streets there were paved with gold. Both India and China seemed doomed to eternal poverty. Today, it is clear that the Asian century has begun. What remains unclear, however, are the factors that caused this enormous change. There was, for example, the exhaustion of the European colonial powers after two destructive World Wars, and the consolidation of nationalist sentiments, forged in the anticolonial struggles. There was the rise of the U.S. as the most benign power in human history, creating a new world order that allowed potential rivals to emerge. There were the pressures of cold war competition, which forced the U.S. to encourage the economic success of its allies, especially Japan and the four Asian tigers. Then there were accidents with profound, if unanticipated, consequences, like the Sino-Soviet split, which drove China into the U.S. camp and facilitated Deng Xiaoping's fateful decision to explain why China needed the Four Modernizations, and financial accidents, like the Plaza Accord of 1985, which caused a rush of Japanese investments into East Asia. There was the cultural attraction of the U.S., which lured hundreds of thousands of young Asians to study there—when they returned home, these Asians provided the yeast for a new cultural confidence in their own societies. Finally, there was globalization, which provided a tremendous boost to Asian economies, especially to China's and India's.All of these forces for change can be thought of as benign. Yet in paradoxical ways, tragedies, too, contributed to Asia's rise. The Korean War was painful and destructive. But it led to a strategic American decision to encourage the rebuilding of Japan's economy and society—although this sadly swept under the carpet the dreadful record of Japan's actions in World War II. Japan's economic success in turn inspired the four tigers. The Vietnam War was equally painful. But the U.S. decision to hold the line in Indochina allowed Southeast Asian countries to become dynamos, rather than dominoes. The historical verdict on U.S. involvement in Vietnam is unfair: despite the ignominious retreat by the U.S. from Saigon, Vietnam ultimately applied to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).The Vietnamese decision to invade Cambodia in December 1978 also triggered some happy, if unintended, consequences. Apart from ending the genocide of Pol Pot, it solidified the Sino-American relationship and gave ASEAN new political resolve. One of the least appreciated contributions to the rise of Asia has been the magic provided by ASEAN in delivering political stability and harmony to Southeast Asia. Despite having greater ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity than Southeast Europe, the region remained an oasis of peace in the 1990s while the Balkans erupted into a frenzy of ethnic and religious killings. ASEAN saved Southeast Asia, especially during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which could have led to political havoc in the region. And it is at the heart of the alphabet soup of regional processes that have provided the foundations for even wider regional cooperation. The first-ever Asia-wide summit will be held in Kuala Lumpur in December this year, bringing together the 10 ASEAN leaders with those of China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. It will be a truly historic meeting. ASEAN made it possible.Of course, other regions in the world benefited from propitious external developments. The U.S. supported allies in other areas of the developing world—for example, Egypt received as much aid as South Korea. But nowhere else has seen the scale of success in Asia. Why is that? Here, the missing piece of the puzzle has to be the cultural fabric of Asian societies.Cultural confidence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for development. Centuries of European colonial rule had progressively reduced Asian self-confidence. Future generations of Indian citizens will be wondering how 300 million Indians—including my own ancestors—allowed themselves to be passively ruled by fewer than 100,000 Britons. Those as yet unborn will not understand how deeply the myth of European cultural superiority had been embedded into the Indian psyche. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister, once said the defeat of Russia in 1905 by Japan first triggered the idea of independence for India in his mind. That was a remarkable admission; it implied that intelligent Indians could not conceive of governing themselves before Japan, an Asian power, defeated a European one.Japan's record in World War II was disastrous. But if Japan had not succeeded early in the 20th century, Asia's development would have come much later. Japan inspired the rise of Asia. Even South Korea, which suffered from brutal Japanese colonial rule, could not have taken off so fast without having Japan as a role model. Asia needs to send Japan a big thank-you note. The tragedy, of course, is that such words of gratitude will not be delivered while Japan remains ambivalent about its own identity, torn between Asia and the West.Even the Chinese should thank Japan. Tokyo's continuous denials of its army's atrocities in World War II will always complicate relations with Beijing. But China would not be where it is today if Deng had not made that fateful decision to move from communist central planning to a free-market system. Deng took this incredibly bold leap because he had seen how well the Overseas Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong and even Singapore had done. Those three tigers—and the fourth, South Korea—were inspired by Japan. The stone that Japan threw into Asia-Pacific waters created ripples that eventually benefited China, too.What makes Asia's rise so irreversible is the simultaneous success of both China and India. Their political paths could not be more different: India is a democracy, while China retains Communist Party rule. The acceptance of free-market disciplines, however, provides a common economic platform. China and India today are united in their cultural confidence, especially among their youth. Both countries have the most optimistic generation of young people they have seen in centuries. Nothing can hold back the dynamism and vigor they will bring to their societies, and to the whole world.The West got the first whiff of this cultural confidence at the end of the cold war. Basking in ideological triumph, the West prescribed that all societies should immediately become replicas of Western liberal democracies. Many happily followed this prescription. Few succeeded. Some came to grief. The Asian states, especially China, resisted copying the West. This is how the famous Asian values debate was sparked. In refusing Western prescriptions, Asians were perceived to be promoting the superiority of their own values. In fact, they were merely arguing that they should be free to choose their own political paths. Lest there be any misunderstanding, Asian intellectuals—including those from China—agree that the ultimate political destination of all societies is democracy. The destination is not in question; only the route and the timing are.Sept. 11, 2001, removed all traces of political smugness in Western minds and all claims to Western ideological superiority. It made the West aware that the new ideological challenge from Islam was far bigger than the communist one, which future historians will see as a passing shower. Islam has been around for over 1,300 years, penetrating deeply into the souls of 1.2 billion people. Most Islamic societies have yet to find the right balance between modernization and their religious roots. The success of East Asia, especially its Muslim societies, could eventually trigger the modernization of the Islamic world.Yet questions remain about the sustainability of Asia's success. Asian countries will continue to stumble from time to time. They cannot rely solely on favorable external developments or on Western ideas—though it is these, not Asian ones, that have driven Asia's growth. The economic principles of Asia's rise come from a Scot, Adam Smith. The political ideologies come from Western thinkers, from John Locke to Karl Marx. The international multilateral grid that has served Asia well—including the U.N., WTO, IMF and World Bank—is essentially a Western creation. Asians have benefited enormously from being passengers on the Western globalization bus.Soon, they will help drive it. Asians cannot be free riders forever. Yet few Asians have given thought to how they will reshape the world order. The world is keen to learn what new responsibilities Asia will take on. So far, the region has remained silent. On the cultural front, too, Asian passivity is surprising. Bollywood, the sole major exception, is growing in strength. But in virtually every other field, Asians have been consumers of Western cultural products, especially American ones. The Asian economies now produce almost 40% of global GDP, but they have only a minority stake in the world's cultural industries, from film to TV, from books to print media. No Asian TV channel currently can match cnn or the BBC. This distorts global perspectives. The world sees Asia through Western eyes. Asians have yet to explain themselves in their own terms to the rest of the world.But history teaches us that economic growth eventually generates a cultural renaissance. It would be strange for Asian societies, from Iran to South Korea, from China to India, not to rediscover their rich cultural heritage. The high price paid for Asian antiques in Western auction houses is, perhaps, a first hint of this new cultural pride. But a cultural renaissance cannot just rediscover old glories. It has to provide directions for the future. Just as Asian economies have succeeded by drawing on the best practices of East and West, the Asian cultural renaissance (or renaissances) will also see a fusion of Eastern and Western civilizations, allowing the West to feel included in, not excluded from, Asia's rise.When Asia's growth achieves a certain momentum by the end of the 21st century, Asian minds will inevitably come up with new conundrums. Why did their ancestors take so long to succeed and modernize? Why did Europe and not Asia trigger the Industrial Revolution? How could a few key capitals in Europe and America make decisions that determined Asian destinies? How could London ever have been more important than Bombay, or Paris more important than Beijing? These questions too will come.Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and author of Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust between America and the World