Chandran Nair suggests that Asians should not make this century the Asian one. But the numbers tell us that this simply isn’t possible; by 2050 Asia will account for more than half the global economy and over 45% of all financial assets. Asia’s will be the largest market in the world for virtually every product, so whether Nair likes it or not, the Asian century is already happening.
The real question is how Asians can shape their own century. Asia could help the world move towards a better system of global governance, but despite its growing economic power, the region remains greatly under-represented in the decision-making bodies of major international institutions like the IMF.
Since the current economic crisis began and the G20 overtook the G7, Asia’s contribution to the world economy has grown rapidly. It serves as a major engine for global growth not only through exports, but increasingly as a shock absorber through the expansion of its internal demand.
Asia is a very diverse region. Countries’ living standards vary widely, and the spectrum of political systems is much more pronounced than in Europe. Another major difference is the extent of intra-regional economic interdependence; Asia is much more interlinked with other parts of the word for trade, financial transactions and technology than is Europe.
Such diversity is both good and bad. It delays and prevents the depth of integration we see in more homogeneous regions like Europe. Regional institutions are also relatively impotent because national agencies in Asia are reluctant to move from sovereignty to common governance. But diversity, combined with tight economic links with non-regional members and the absence of a single leading country, has promoted the emergence of a bottom-up, participatory approach to regional integration. Asia will be naturally inclined to follow a similar model in governing global institutions.
“Open regionalism” – a form of co-operation which minimises discrimination against non-members – is an Asian invention. Collective leadership also ensures that participants feel they have an important role to play in the institutional set-up. The importance of maintaining harmony and peace, reflected in rapid economic growth over the last 50 years without any major conflicts, is central to many of the proposals recently put forward by Asian political leaders for the creation of a regional community. Extending these principles from regional to global governance will allow Asia to do a better job than the West in influencing and managing global commons.
But other major problems leave less room for optimism. The transparency which is so fundamental to good global governance is a typical Asian weakness. Many years of Western influence have also left a strong imprint on consumption patterns and economic development models. Chandran Nair is right to suggest that countries around the world need to price collective welfare much higher than individual rights. He is also right to say that achieving sustainable development is a global priority which implies the re-pricing of natural resources. We can no longer act as if there are no resource constraints.
The Asian century must therefore bring about the supremacy of the common environment over the individual. Non-discrimination and collective leadership may have been imposed more by necessity than by virtue, but now Asia must extend its principles of regional governance to the management of global institutions. Countries such as China and India can play a very influential role in promoting sustainable development. Europe should support Asia’s emerging leadership if it wants to retain its own role as an active international player, betting on the ability of Asian leaders to improve the current system and promote the joint-production of global public goods.