The greatest merit of Parag Khanna’s new book, The Future is Asian, is to accessibly tell the story of a historical inevitability – with the extra bonus of an Asian point of view. This is not only a very good public service, it also blows out of the water countless tomes by Western “experts” pontificating about Asia from an air-con cubicle in Washington.
Asia hands from the West tend to be extremely protective of their extra-territoriality. In my case, I moved to Asia in 1994, and Singapore was my first base. In time I found out – along with some of my colleagues at Asia Times – nothing would ever compare to following the ever-developing, larger than life Asian miracle on the spot.
Khanna has always been in the thick of the action. Born in India, he then moved to the UAE, the West, and is now a resident in Singapore. Years ago we spent a jolly good time in New York swapping Asia on-the-road stories; he’s a cool conversationalist. His Connectography is a must read.
Khanna found a very special niche to “sell” Asia to the Western establishment as a strategic adviser – and is very careful not to ruffle feathers. Barack Obama, for instance, is only guilty of “half-heartedness”. When you get praise from Graham Allison, who passes for a Thucydides authority in the US but would have major trouble understanding Italian master Luciano Canfora’s Tucidide: La Menzogna, La Colpa, L’Esilio, you know that Khanna has done his homework.
Of course, there are a few problems. It’s a bit problematic to coin Singapore “the unofficial capital of Asia”. There’s no better place to strategically follow China than Hong Kong. And as a melting pot, Bangkok, now truly cosmopolitan, is way more dynamic, creative and, let’s face it, funkier.
In 1997 I published a book in Brazil titled 21st: The Asian Century, based on three years of non-stop on-the-road reporting. It came out only a few days before the Hong Kong handover and the collapse of the baht that sparked the Asian financial crisis – so the book’s argument might have been seen as passé. Not really; once the crisis was over, the development push by the Asian tigers was overtaken by China. And 10 years later, slightly before the Western-made global financial crisis, the road to the Asian Century was more than self-evident.
Khanna hits all the right tones and multiple overtones stating the case that the Asian century “will…” begin when Asia crystallizes into a whole greater than "the sum of its many parts”. It’s already happening, and it’s a wise choice to set the point of no return towards an Asia-led new world order at the first Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in May 2017 in Beijing.
Yet throughout the book Khanna feels the need to take immense pain showing frightened Anglo-American readers that China won’t lead the Asian future; there will be no “Chinese tianxia, or harmonious global system guided by Chinese Confucian principles”.
And that offers room for references to the push by the US and its allies to “deter China”, or the push by “Japan, India, Australia and Vietnam” to “counter China aggression”. Not to mention credit to the pathetic notion of “clash of civilizations”. But, on a whole, Khanna nails it.
“By joining BRI, other Asian countries have tacitly recognized China as a global power – but the bar for hegemony is very high.”
No East and West
Within the scope of an article, and not a book, it’s possible to show that this epic story is not about hegemony, but connectivity.
First of all, there’s no East and West; as Edward Said has shown, this is essentially inherited from Eurocentrism and colonialism, starting way back when the Ancient Greeks situated the western borders of Asia in the eastern Mediterranean.
Asia, the term, comes from the ancient Assyrian assu – which means rising sun. A clear distinction between East and West was stamped by the end of the 3rd century, at the time of Diocletian, when the Roman empire was cut in half following a meridian from Dalmatia to Cyrenaica, a partition confirmed at the death of Theodosius 1 in 395 AD.
The East then organized itself around Constantinople while the West was divided and regarded as Europe, a distinct unity under Charlemagne (800 AD). What’s interesting is that in contrast with China – self-defined as the center of the world – neither the Roman Empire nor Islam saw themselves as such, admitting the existence of other quite populated worlds: China and India.
The notion of a “continent” only came up in the 16th century, based on the tri-partition Europe-Asia-Africa made by the Greeks in the Eastern Mediterranean, adopted by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and ratified by the “discovery” of the New World: the Americas. So once again, “continent” is a Western invention.
Eurasia is essentially a giant, elliptical, unified space. Crack geographers tend to see it to the north – from Central Asia up to the northwest of India – as the realm of caravan routes, Silk Roads, cosmopolitan oases, steppes and deserts crisscrossed by nomads.
To the south, it’s a sort of monsoon “shawl” draped over a unique ocean; maritime routes through straits; and cosmopolitan ports and warehouses.
Southeast Asia enjoys a unique status, squeezed in a historical and cultural pincer movement between two major forces, constituted in an independent manner from one another as two major civilizations; India to the west and China to the northeast.
The inner logic of all this immense space is mutation, trade exchanges, and migrations. So Eurasia is essentially unified as two major “on the move” spaces; continental and steppe (on horseback), plus maritime (via navigation). Historically, between these two corridors, we find the creative hubs of civilizations and more durable empires: China, the Indian world, Persia/Iran, the Arab world, the Byzantine-Ottoman empire.
Hard node of history
In one of his exceptional books, French geographer Christian Grataloup conclusively shows how Eurasia is a geo-historic entity – exhibiting a “system of inter-relations from one end to another”. Yes, it’s all about connectivity, as the Chinese are stressing with the New Silk Roads or BRI.
Already by the 15th century, every society in Eurasia exhibited the same presence of cities, writing, monetary exchange. So it’s possible to conceive a common history, from the Mediterranean to Japan, for over two millennia. Grataloup’s intuition is breathtaking. “This is the hard node of world history”.
Historically, it’s all about the confluence of eastern routes in the north, the Silk Roads at the center, and southern routes, mostly the Spice Route. In the central segment of the major axis, decisive innovations occurred; the first villages, the first forms of agriculture, writing, the birth of the State. As the great Mongol caravan empire, built around the Silk Roads in the 13th century, fractured, while societies in the extremities of Eurasia developed maritime power.
Khanna offers myriad details on the key fact; that the Eurasian space is finally being rearranged, rebuilt via economic development, along transversal axes configured as economic corridors; the result of a modernization process that started in Japan in the second half of the 19th century to expand to all of East and Southeast Asia, then China, and finally India. The genius of the BRI project is to make it happen.
The Chinese ambition to be the economic leader of the Eurasia ensemble – by land and by sea – is a unique development in the region’s history, combining the continental approach of the Mongol empire of the steppes, or the Russia empire, with the maritime approach of the West, especially via the British Empire.
But contrary to Western imperialism, it’s all based on economy and culture. So, China will have a lot of work mastering the art of soft power. Time though is on the BRI side; the horizon is 2049 – not profits in the next quarter. Maritime routes in the north like the Arctic Silk Road, and via the South China Sea and Indian Ocean to the south, will envelop Eurasia, which will articulate itself in the center over high-speed rail and highway corridors of the New Silk Roads and the upgraded Trans-Siberian links.
They call it Euro-Asia in Beijing, and they call it Greater Eurasia in Moscow. The whole process is historically inexorable, already forging the future – call it Asian or Eurasian.