Monday, November 22, 2010

Thoughts on the rise of Asia

David Pilling has a
long, rambling, but good column in the Financial Times about the rise of Asia. It's all over the place, but basically it says:

1) Asia is growing much faster than anywhere else.

2) Since Asia is really just a silly European word for "everything on the Big Continent to the east of us," Asia is enormous, and hence it's not particularly unusual for them to be a big share of world GDP.

3) There are still dangers that could stop the rise of China and India, e.g. environmental or political problems.

4) Asia's increasing economy will give Asian countries increased political importance.

All of these are good points. However, let me make a few points that, I think are less commonly made.

First of all, the rise of China may be a return to historical norms, but the rise of India is not. China, historically, was usually one single political unit, while India was always divided between north and south. And while China was the world's technological leader for about 700 years, India has never led in technology. Also, though China often dominated its neighborhood, India rarely did. India had a huge GDP, true, but this was back in the days when everyone's GDP came from farming, and India simply had more farmers and richer farmland. The fact is, India is poised to become a technological, military, and economic superpower for the first time ever. This, it seems to me, is a more momentous shift even than China's rise.

Second, "Asia" will probably never return to its historic share of world GDP, for the simple reason that lots of people live in the Western Hemisphere now. The rise of the U.S., and now Brazil, Mexico, etc. permanently shrinks the relative weight of every other region. And, even more than the rise of India, the rise of the Western Hemisphere is historically unprecedented.

Third, a region's "rise" no longer means what it used to. Namely, powerful countries used to go out and conquer weaker ones (think: Europe in the 1700s, Mongols in the 1200s), but that is no longer an economically advantageous thing to do. The rise of the U.S. led to a smattering invasions and occupations (Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq), but few real conquests or colonizations. We can expect the rise of Asia to entail even fewer.

And finally, the big danger from Asia's rise (besides wholesale exhaustion of the planet's resources) is that Asian countries will fight each other. I humbly submit that Noah's Law of Competition states that competition is more common among things that are similar than things that are different. Or, in this case: Neighbors fight. Europe's rise was accompanied by centuries of internecine warfare; no less than 8 continent-wide wars raged from 1618 through 1945. Asia has already been through a period of war in the 20th Century, so we know that Asians are no more peaceful than Europeans. And Asian states are arming themselves at a furious pace.

Like Pilling's column, this blog post is a collection of tangentially related observations. But the main thrust is this: The possibility of internecine Asian warfare is the scariest political threat facing the world in the next 50 years. And the rise of the Global South, not China, will be the most significant historical event in the next 100.

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