The dawn of the new millennium was supposed to herald the beginning of the Asian Century. There has, indeed, been a shift of power and influence eastwards, with giants such as China regaining their prominence while a new grouping, the G20 – formed just a year before the turn of the century and including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea – better reflects the world today than its predecessor, the G7.
Disembarking at stunning steel-and-glass airports across the continent, particularly in the Arabian Gulf and southeast Asia, it still strikes me, as I stroll through their pristine corridors, that this is the future.
So many parts of the so-called developed world feel cramped, oppressive and underwhelming by comparison. And many parts that have been rejuvenated owe that to investment from Asia. Indeed, such has been the Middle Eastern contribution to London's skyline that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used to joke that his capital was in fact an Arabian Gulf city.
So far, so fitting to the narrative. And yet there are grounds to ask if the Asian Century is now stalling, and badly so. For the continent is riven by conflict. South Korea and Japan are escalating a bitter trade war over the latter's behaviour towards the former when the Korean Peninsula was part of the Japanese empire. Relations between India and Pakistan have sunk to a troubling low over New Delhi's revocation of disputed Kashmir's special constitutional status.
Yemen and Syria are still afflicted by long-drawn out civil wars. The much vaunted “centrality” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has been severely undermined by Myanmar’s genocidal treatment of the Rohingya, which has provoked demonstrations and official protests in Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia.
China is stronger than ever under the enhanced leadership of President Xi Jinping, yet also possibly brittle faced with unpalatable choices in Hong Kong, where no one seems sure how to deal with an unprecedented two months of mass unrest.
Meanwhile US policy towards the continent – always an important factor – is dangerously unclear, polarised between the sabre-rattling rhetoric of national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the isolationist inclinations of President Trump.
If this is the Asian Century, it is not the glorious prospect envisioned when it was first talked about in the 1980s and 1990s.
One early proponent of the concept, the Singaporean academic and diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, proposed in his 2018 book Has The West Lost It? what he calls his "three M" strategy for how Europe and the Americas should deal with the end of what he refers to as the 200-year-long "historical aberration" of western dominance. If this seems to be flipping the argument, it is undoubtedly necessary for the rest of the world to take a sensible approach to forming a new and peaceful global order, in which Asia rather than the West is the dominant power.
The first M, says Mahbubani, is “minimalist”. He writes: “The West should ask itself: should it get involved in so many wars?...The Chinese haven’t fired a shot in 40 years, since the end of the war with Vietnam in 1979, whereas even during the last year of the presidency of Barack Obama, a peaceful man who won the Nobel Peace Prize, America dropped 26,000 bombs on seven countries. That’s crazy.”
The second M is “multilateral”. Global institutions need to be strengthened, not weakened. But that will only happen if they are rebalanced so that Asian countries are granted a far bigger role in their governance. How can one justify, for instance, the continuance of the old rule that the head of the World Bank should always be an American and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund a European?
Mahbubani’s third M is “Machiavellian”, by which he means pragmatic. He points out that Chinese investment in Africa is in Europe’s interests, since a developed Africa is less likely to threaten the Mediterranean with huge waves of illegal immigration. Starting from a position of suspicion over everything that China does is unwise.
Current and historical interference by outsiders undoubtedly contributes to conflict in Asia. But I would argue that for the continent to address problems within its boundaries it should also return to another concept popularised in the 1990s: Asian values.
Preference for a social cohesion that elevates the collective good over that of the individual; an inclusivity that celebrates diversity as a national benefit, rather than communities living in silos; learning how to disagree without being disagreeable, the unofficial mantra of Asean; an approach to good governance, democracy and human rights that is rooted in local values and not shying from the fact that these may differ from supposedly universal values that are, in reality, western ones.
Asian values fell out of fashion. Some argued that they were nebulous or that there were no principles around which the continent could truly unite. Yet the ideas outlined above persist in almost every declaration and communique that are produced by regional gatherings. And there would be no place for a Hindu-only India or a Buddhist-only Myanmar if they were followed. They embrace the reality of multiconfessional states, which must also be part of a long-term solution for Syria, and accept that there is no one-size-fits all version of governance. Consensus and dialogue are not signs of weakness, and they are certainly necessary for South Korea and Japan to resolve their differences.
Some warn darkly that the Asian Century is already over. That is too gloomy a conclusion. But its success requires not only that the West recalibrates how it deals with Asia’s rise but that the continent looks to its own history and values. It is only by drawing on the lessons of its own past glories that it will realise its true potential in the 21st century.
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum