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November 30, 2022

Our world seen from Asia

By Ioan Voicu

We have had the occasion to review in the Romanian daily Nine O’Clock  the book entitled The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, Ridge Books, 2017, by Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffry Sng. (See https://www.nineoclock.ro/2017/08/08/celebrating-aseans-golden-anniversary/)

Kishore Mahbubani served as Singapore Permanent Representative to the United Nations between 1984 and 1989, and again between 1998 and 2004 and is currently involved in an active academic career. His most recent book presented below entitled The Asian 21st Century   is part of the collection China and Globalization and was published by Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd in 2022. It has270 pages.

This book read in its electronic version is composed of a group of 44 essays written by Kishore Mahbubani  in order to explore the challenges and dilemmas faced by the West and Asia in an increasingly interdependent world village and intensifying geopolitical competition.

It starts with a strong  topical statement :”We live in hugely paradoxical times. We will see greater change in the twenty-first century than we have in any previous human century”.

In part one, the author explains why the West refuses to accept the painful reality that the West can no longer dominate the world. The international order has lagged dangerously behind shifting global power dynamics. If leaders do not start addressing the contradictions soon, the most likely result is a crisis—or even conflict—and even more dangerous contradictions. The world turned a corner in 2019. The problem is that the world order didn’t turn with it. This disconnect could have disastrous consequences. The biggest global change has been the start of the “Asian century.” Today, Asia is home to three of the world’s top four economic powers (in purchasing power parity terms): China, India, and Japan. The region’s combined GDP exceeds that of the United States and of the European Union.

In Kishore Mahbubani’s  opinion, the 21st century will see the return of China to the center stage of world history. The time has come for the West to do a complete reboot and reconsider all its fundamental premises on China.

The author  estimates that as Asia represents 60% of humanity, it would be natural for Asians to take the leadership in proposing three concrete steps that can strengthen multilateralism.

The first step would be  to restore the primary role of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to serve as the global parliament for humanity. It can legitimately claim to represent the voices of all humanity. The UNGA is one vehicle that Asian countries can use to demonstrate that Asian perspectives on the world now enjoy far more support than Western perspectives. The Asian countries should therefore work together to strengthen the UNGA.

The second step that Asian countries could take is to strengthen key multilateral organizations, like the WHO and IAEA by providing them with more resources.

The third step for the Asian countries to take is to share with the world one of the best models of regional multilateral cooperation. To some extent, ASEAN has already done this as demonstrated by the success of ASEAN by strengthening the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). RCEP was proposed by the ten ASEAN countries and also includes five other East Asian countries – China, Japan, South Korea, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

The expectation is clearly formulated :21st century will mark the end of the era of Western domination. The major strategic error that the West is now making is to refuse to accept this reality. The West needs to learn how to act strategically in a world where they are no longer the number 1.

The author recognizes that the return of Asia to the center stage of world history can be explained in part by its absorbing of the wisdom and ideas of Western civilization. But to stem the rising distrust between East and West, the West must now learn some critical lessons from China’s Asian neighbors on how to manage the rise of China.

Major attention is paid in the book under consideration to what the author calls The  Asian Renaissance . He reminds that  “From the years 1 to 1820, the largest economies in the world were Asian. After 1820 and the rise of the West, however, great Asian civilizations like China and India were dominated and humiliated. The 21st Century will see the return of Asia to the center of the world stage.[…]

In author’s interpretation , “History has turned a corner. The era of Western domination is ending. The resurgence of Asia in world affairs and the global economy, which was happening before the emergence of Covid-19, will be cemented in a new world order after the crisis. The deference to Western societies, which was the norm in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, will be replaced by growing respect and admiration for East Asian ones. The pandemic could thus mark the start of the Asian century”.

At the same time , the author warns :”It would be a mistake, however, to believe that ASEAN will drift inexorably into a Chinese sphere of influence. Over the years, ASEAN has accumulated quiet geopolitical wisdom. It will keep all windows open and also take advantage of unexpected geopolitical opportunities.” Based on the UN 2022 data, the current population of South-Eastern Asia is 683,539,359 as of Saturday, October 8, 2022.

In the same context , the author believes that the current  growing US-China geopolitical contest makes India well placed to provide a leading ethical voice on the international stage. According to the UN data, India’s population is set to rise to 1.515 billion in 2030, from 1.417 billion in 2022.

Additional explanations and arguments are provided  to persuade the readers about the validity of this assessment. India is entering a geopolitical sweet spot. What does this mean? In a world crying out for a strong, independent voice to provide moral guidance to a troubled planet, the only realistic candidate is India. None of the three other obvious candidates—the United States, the European Union, and China—can step up to the plate now, asserts the author .

As the Asian Century draws near, India faces three choices for how it can navigate geopolitically turbulent times. It can align closely with the US and the Quad, integrate itself into an Asian ecosystem of trade and peace, or become an independent pole in new multilateral world order.

If India can be as successful domestically as Indians are internationally, it can fulfill its potential to become a leading global superpower.

In Asia, the country with the biggest gap between its potential and its performance is India. All India has to do is to learn from its Southeast Asian and Chinese neighbors and open itself up to economic competition. This is a major finding of the book under review.

A central part of the book is specifically dedicated to what the author  calls The Peaceful Rise of China. From his perspective, the balance of power in the world is currently shifting from West to East with the rise of China and other Asian nations. While this rise has been peaceful, it has caused major concern in the West. The tempestuousness of this rise is mainly due to the considerable influence China is having on how a new world order may be shaped.

This analysis continues in the last part of the  book under the title Globalization, Multilateralism and Cooperation.

The author  asserts in crystal-clear language :”Many of the world’s pressing issues, such as COVID-19 and climate change, are global issues, and will require global cooperation to deal with. In short, we now live in a global village. The world needs a world order that enables and facilitates states to work with each other in our global village.”

The approach to the globalization’s subject is highly critical.  The author considers that “The central paradox of our times is that even though globalization has dramatically improved the human condition over the past few decades, many are now predicting its imminent demise.”

The answer to the question how did this happen is short, but persuasive. The author writes :”Because of three key strategic mistakes made by the West in its management of globalization”.

We will enumerate these mistakes using the exact language of the book.

“The first mistake was made by the elites, the top 1% in the US. They reaped huge rewards from globalization, but they failed to help the lower half of Americans who suffered from the inevitable disruptions (or, more accurately, “creative destruction”) caused by globalization.

The second mistake was to weaken government and governmental institutions when they should have been strengthened instead. This mistake was made during the famous Reagan-Thatcher revolution when Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” The consequences of this belief were disastrous. Three decades of defunding, delegitimization, and demoralization of key public service agencies followed it.

The third mistake was for the top 1% to create a functional plutocracy in America. What is the essential difference between a democracy and a plutocracy? In a democracy, you have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In a plutocracy, you have a government of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%. Most Americans react with disbelief to the claim that their society has functionally become a plutocracy”.

One of the most interesting parts of the book under review is  about Diplomacy: Power or Persuasion.

Kishore Mahbubani considers that  “Revival of diplomacy, based on deploying the art of persuasion, will help to create a more harmonious and cooperative global community. After years of the United States, especially under Donald Trump, retreating from multilateralism, it will require active reasoning, listening, and adjusting for Western powers”.

In the author’s opinion “Multilateral diplomacy is a sunrise industry. The acceleration of globalization and the consequential shrinking of the globe has led to the literal, not metaphorical, creation of a global village. Every village needs its councils. All the processes of multilateral diplomacy serve to fulfill the functions of these global village councils”.

But what is multilateral diplomacy in action ?

The author’s answer is both academic and functional :”‘multilateral diplomacy’ will be defined as the practice of involving more than two nations or parties in achieving diplomatic solutions to supranational problems. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, ‘diplomacy has expanded its remit, moving far beyond bilateral political relations between states into a multilateral, multifaceted enterprise encompassing almost every realm of human endeavor'[…] Since multilateral diplomacy is a rapid growth industry, new forms are emerging constantly, making it difficult to provide a comprehensive description of all types.[…] In theory, multilateral diplomacy is guided by some key principles of the international order. Also, in theory, international organizations have been set up, by agreements reached in multilateral diplomacy, to perform certain functions and deliver certain global goods for the benefits of all––in other words, provide global governance in their relevant fields––and not to act as a means to the major powers’ ends”.

The author, inspired by his own long and  significant experience at the UN believes that  in practice, however, power usually trumps principles and ideals. He reminds that there is a tension between universal organizations like  the UN which represent all of humanity and often enjoy great legitimacy, and several smaller and more informal groups or coalitions (like the G7 and G20) which also try to address key global challenges.

The final conclusion of the book is moderately optimistic. Kishore Mahbubani believes that  multilateral diplomacy can be revived and strengthened with some clear practical steps .These  steps can only be taken after a new political consensus has emerged in key capitals, both in the established powers and in the newly-emerging powers. The processes of multilateral diplomacy need to be strengthened, rather than weakened. The creation of this new political consensus will in turn require a concerted effort involving both key state and non-state actors.

This conclusion seems to be present in the minds of the participants of the current 77th UNGA session in 2022. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, declared at the beginning of the session the following :” In these turbulent times, the work of the United Nations is more necessary than ever to reduce suffering, prevent crises, manage risks and build a sustainable future for all “.

Kishore Mahbubani’s valuable book is in harmony with the  UN appeals dealing with global vulnerabilities , perplexities and discontinuities in our world  and will be a highly useful reading for diplomats, journalists and all  persons interested in international relations.

*Dr. Ioan Voicu was  Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok (2000-2019).


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