December 3, 2002

Asia to rise in the 21st century

As the nineteenth century was the British century and the twentieth century was the American century, will the twenty-first century be the Asian century? This is not that much of a question of forecast now as it was in the 1970s; rather, as we officially entered the twenty-first century some two years ago, the question of whether it should count as the Asian century became a question of objective conditions under the current situation.

Let us specify what the theorists or advocates of the Asian century thesis mean by the term Asian. They certainly do not refer to Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, or Israel, which are all Asian countries, geographically speaking, nor do they refer to the Russian Federation, two-thirds of which lies in Asia. Rather, by the term Asian, they are referring to East Asian countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.

Giovanni Arrighi argues that "in a recent comparative analysis of rates of economic growth since the 1870s, the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) finds 'nothing comparable with the [East] Asian economic growth experience of the last three decades'" (p.66). Following Arrighi and the UBS study, we find that "the eight-percent plus average annual income growth set by several [East] Asian economies since the late 1960s is unique in the 130 years of recorded history." Moreover "even more impressive is the advance of East Asia in global high finance. The Japanese share of the total assets of Fortune's top 50 banks in the world increased from 18 percent in 1970, to 27 percent in 1980, to 48 percent in 1990" (Ibid). The way Arrighi tells the story, it sounds like the economic basis of hegemony has already shifted from the U.S. to East Asia. He argues that some form of China-centered conglomeration of East Asian states will be the next hegemon of the capitalist world economy. The irony here is that China is still officially communist. Arrighi, Immanuel Wallerstein, and others are basically neo-Marxist sociologists, and they are saying that global capitalism needs a hegemonic leadership based on economic prosperity and economic growth. The hegemonic leadership to preside over global capitalism is passing to East Asian countries. According to Arrighi, for example, this hegemonic genealogy began with Venice, then passed on to Genoese merchants, then to Dutch, and then firmly to the British empire, and finally to the U.S. Now the leadership of global capitalism is passing on to East Asian countries led by China.

If you think Arrighi is exaggerating, you haven't seen anything yet. Let's look at Andre Gunder Frank's thesis in his book Reorient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, which I think is the much more extreme and historical version of Arrighi's thesis. While for Arrighi the history of the global economy starts in the 1450s with the Venetians, Genoese and the discovery of the Americas, Gunder Frank claims that the old world (Asia, Africa, Europe) has been incorporated into a global economy for more than 5,000 years. And Gunder Frank further claims that in these 5,000 years of economic history, the world markets revolved around China, so to say. The world economy was China-centric for some 4,500 years and hence, Gunder Frank claims, the last 500 years of European domination has been an exception, a deviation from the usual course of economic activity. Now, he thinks, the world economy is bouncing back to the usual course, re-orienting itself towards an increasingly China-centric world order.

The question for me is normative. These theorists make convincing arguments about economic trends that we can observe in everyday life. Everyone knows about the Japanese miracle. Everyone knows about the Asian tigers. And finally, everyone is becoming increasingly aware of China's rise to regional and maybe even global supremacy. But the normative question is whether this shift in global hegemony to East Asia is a good thing. Well, Japan is a well-functioning democracy, but what about China? It won't be fun living under Pax China if they keep their authoritarian, repressive, left-wing fascist regime.