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Asia in 2008: Its rise is a global good

January 04, 2008 09:53 IST

As 2008 draws near, very few educated people can still be unaware of the rising economic and strategic power of Asia.

Consider 2007. The year began with China firing a ballistic missile to destroy a weather satellite in orbit, a successful test of space warfare that sent shockwaves through the US. In November, PetroChina overtook Exxon Mobil as the world's top company by market value. This time the tremors were felt on Wall Street.

In the months between, Chinese and Indian corporations went on a shopping spree for international assets, from Australian mines and a Scotch whisky producer to British and African banks. Mark Renton, Citigroup's head of investment banking for Asia Pacific, told the Financial Times: "There is a fundamental shift occurring in the world's centre of gravity."

The impact of Asia's rapid economic ascent has been felt first in business and finance. China now has more than 100 billionaires in dollars, second only to the US. It is not only the world's largest oil company that is Chinese; the same is true of the biggest bank, airline, insurer and telecoms company.

Yet Asia's impending return to the global economic dominance it enjoyed before the industrial revolution is not merely a matter of finance. Beijing has quickly expanded its political and cultural influence in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and central Asia.

Not all of this influence is beneficial. By their very success, China and India, each with more than 1bn inhabitants and a thirst for resources, threaten the planet's environment. China is about to become - or has already become - the world's biggest emitter of the carbon dioxide gas that contributes to global warming. This year alone, China has built 90,000MW of new electricity-generating capacity, more than the entire capacity of the UK grid.

Such awe-inspiring statistics make it tempting to see 2008 - the year of China's "coming-out party", the Beijing Olympics - as a turning-point in world affairs. "We are now entering one of the most plastic moments of world history," writes Kishore Mahbubani in his forthcoming book, The New Asian Hemisphere: the Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (Public Affairs).

History, pace Francis Fukuyama, is not at an end, but moving faster than ever. Changes in the relative power of nations and continents are accelerating because of leverage provided by new technologies and previously unimaginable rates of economic growth and flows of capital.

But is the rise of Asia unstoppable? And should the rest of the world be sad or glad about it, given the lack of democracy in China, Asia's greatest power?

The first question is quickly answered with a Yes: Asia's rise will continue. Of course there can be no "decoupling" of Asia from the world economy - the region's success is built on foreign trade and investment - and exporters would suffer from a US recession in 2008. But Asian economies are now sufficiently robust to sustain themselves through a slowdown in global demand.

The answer to the second question, on optimism and pessimism, is only slightly more complicated. It is true a few misguided US and European politicians see Asia's rise as part of a zero-sum competition in which China is stealing western jobs. But others recognise the contribution that Asia makes to global well-being through increased trade and lower prices for consumer goods.

Asians and westerners alike should also applaud the stabilising effects of Asia's new prosperity. Instability and danger in Asia are found in precisely those places where development has failed to take hold: North Korea, Burma, Afghanistan, rural Pakistan and the parts of India overrun by Maoist rebels. Although the killing on Thursday of Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani opposition leader, shows how unstable these places are, there is no reason why even they should not eventually share in Asia's success.

As for politics, westerners harbour overblown fears - and Asian dictators have overblown hopes - that the Chinese Communist party will guide China to its inevitable place as the world's largest economy while keeping freedom and democracy at bay.

This ignores the quiet revolution, the gradual de facto liberalisation of the world's most populous nation, that is happening right now under the noses of Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and the rest of the Chinese leadership. "The Chinese people have never been freer," writes Mr Mahbubani, a former Singapore diplomat.

Many Chinese, it is true, are woefully ignorant about events in their own country and abroad because of a highly effective system of state censorship that deadens all media, including the internet and text messages on mobile phones. But as Chinese citizens become richer and more closely connected to the global economy, they travel, they meet people and they talk.

They also demonstrate. Previous protests, with the exception of the student-led Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, mostly involved migrant factory workers complaining about unpaid wages or peasant farmers enraged by the corruption of local officials. Nowadays, urban Chinese stage protests too, defending the value of their property and protecting their health, most recently in Xiamen and Shanghai where they rejected plans respectively for a chemical plant and a high-speed rail link. It is hard to get more middle-class than that.

Asian leaders, successful as they are at managing economies, often have a blind spot about this kind of political and social modernisation.

Yet if Chinese communists, central Asian tyrants or south-east Asian authoritarians think they can modernise their economies without unleashing political reform, they are deceiving themselves - even if the world has to wait a few years beyond 2008 for them to be proved wrong.
Victor Mallet