The Future is Asian?

Parag Khanna: The future is Asian: commerce, conflict and culture in the 21st century.

New York : Simon & Schuster ; First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition. ; 2019

Technology cluster in Schenzen, China

Lately, there have been many good books published with the main focus of explaining China to Westerners. We have looked at AI Superpowers here before, describing how China’s AI development compares to the American. I have also enjoyed the The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, which describes the massive societal project of the Belt Initive, although I haven’t blogged about it.

The recent interest in China is easy to understand. It is currently the world’s largest market and is rapidly changing from within.

Despite this, when you read “the future is Asian” you automatically start questioning this focus on China.

Construction sites in Ho Chi Min City (former Saigon), Vietnam

Yes, it is the country with the biggest population and its economic impact is huge, but Asia is also so much more. Out of 5 billion inhabitants only 1,5 are Chinese, and so on. Asia consists of about fifty countries, represents about half of the world’s GDP, and is where most of growth happens at the moment. China is an important part of this, but not the whole picture.

Local businesses in Ho Chi Min City

Although I have read a fair amount about Japanese history during the times when I was studying Japanese, this history discription was just as national and domestic as the current Chinese ones are.

What’s interesting about this book, is how it interlinks the different Asian countries and cultures with each other, and together sees them as a big transnational patchwork rather than a monolithic culture.

Different forms of culturally-bound transportation, here boats in Thailand

This is also how Asia is developing at the moment. New organisations and networks are forming, and Khanna talks about the “Asianization of Asia”.

Naturally, no-one needs to be reminded that the Asian countries had a vast and colourful history, with dominance way over the European or American. It starts with the birth of human civilization as we know it today in West Asia. In Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Anatolia), the advent of basic farming tools during the Neolithic Revolution enabled humans to evolve from hunter-gatherer tribes into more settled agricultural communities that domesticated animals such as horses and dogs. Prehistoric civilizations also flourished in East Asia. Agriculture became widespread in peninsular Southeast Asia by 6000 BC, in Japan during its Jomon period around 5000 BC, and in China around 4000 BC. By 3500 BC, during the early Bronze Age, the largest centers of the ancient world were Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley (today’s Pakistan), which featured wide streets, bathing platforms, drainage, and reservoirs. And from there it goes on…

Transportation on the desert in Dubai

The so called “western” culture has only experienced a couple of strong centuries, beyond them, most of the world leadership has always been Asian.

What I liked about this book was not only its thorough historical descriptions of the different cultures and how they are interlinked, but also its focus on current developments. Many of the Asian countries currently have strong national programs of developing new practices, and many of these practices are copied and spread through Asia. The massive customer base in Asia also allows for completely new approaches, like the Alibaba ecosystem, where they now talk about “One Belt, One Road, One Cloud”.

What strikes me with this book is a self-reflection of how western- centric much of our terminology can be. We base much of what we say and do on institutions, habits, religions and practices we know, even if we talk about an entirely different set of cultures. It is almost as if we would need to learn a new cultural language. I have spent a lot of time in many of the Asian countries, and still I realise my references, or points of comparison, are often western.

Westernized Chineese food in Shanghai

As an example, organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union and NASA etc. are for me far more familiar than Asian organisations such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with nearly ninety members or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that is emerging as the worlds largest free-trade area by both GDP and trade volume.

The title of the book claims that the future is Asian. This might well be true. The book makes a very solid case for it. But whether we believe this or not it would be healthy to learn more about other cultures, and to understand where our own thinking is biased, or coloured by our own cultural frameworks.

If I would be allowed to shift the title of the book I would say not only that the future is Asian but rather that the future is interconnected. Understanding the other (and yes – I know Simone de Beauvoir meant something completely different with this 🙂 ) will be helpful – no matter which continent is dominant in this particular moment of time.

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