The Rise of Asia and the Asian Century

What the nature of the ‘new world order’ will be is yet undetermined, but we can, on the basis of geopolitical trends, point to a ‘tectonic shift’ in global power relations. The 21st century will witness Asia rise to prominence, if not preeminence, in world politics. However, even though the 21st century will witness the Rise of Asia, will it be an Asian Century?


The focus of this essay is not to examine these trends leading up to a new order but to ask questions about the nature of Asia’s rise. Will the redistribution of power from the West to Asia create new concentrations leading to new dominations contingent upon the visions of new hegemons? Or, can an alternate vision of a collective rise of Asia be envisioned – one that is not bound by the imperatives of the pursuit of power but based on the vision of a community with a common and shared future?

In this regard, I will seek to answer a number of questions. First, I will examine the connotation behind the nomenclature of the Asian Century considering two alternatives; one, the emergence of Asian great powers and, two, the emergence of the people of Asia as equitable stake holders in a new world order. Second, I will consider alternatives about the nature of the Asian century and whether it will be predominated by the logic of the state or of a cosmopolitical vision of an Asian community. Third, I will look at the major actors whose conceptions or misconceptions of the emerging world and consequent policy decisions will have implications for Asia. Fourth, I will discuss an alternate vision based on a concert of multilateral organizations linking Asian countries into chains of mutual gain facilitating the collective rise of Asia.


In this section I would like to examine two possible interpretations of the concept of the Asian Century –  are we referring to the new power dynamics in Asia and the emergent powers (especially China but also India) in Asia; or the fact that the people of Asia are witnessing vast improvements in their life conditions and opportunities?

It would not be wrong to say that the discourse around the rise of Asia is predominantly built around the emergence of China as a possible challenger to US hegemony. So, it is conceivable that the imagination surrounding the idea of an Asian century would be one in which China, possibly along with its Asian allies, projects its influence in the arena of world politics. This, while wholly plausible, is, in my view, restricted and reduces the rise in scope and dimension to the imperatives of great power politics between an established hegemon and the challenger state – a binary that in creating a hierarchy reduces the actors other than the two powers into bandwagoning cronies or swing states. If this is the interpretation accorded to the Asian century then we might as well discard the misnomer to begin with and rather use these labels – China century, the New American century or the New Cold War century, which would all be more suitable to describe the implications of such an interpretation.

The British Century was about imperial hegemony of Great Britain and the American century about the emergence of the USA as the sole superpower. Consequently, the Asian century if conceived of as ‘the main geographical region where reigning and rising powers face off’ (David P. Fidler) ends up becoming a misnomer. So, can we conceive of an alternative vision of an Asian century?

The alternate conception can be based upon John Agnew’s call for a reexamination of geographies as the setting for human lives in which the main concern of world politics is the material welfare of people. Following this line of thinking can we think of the making of an Asian century as being founded on the developmentalist project of improving the life conditions and prospects of the people of Asia?

Asia is witnessing what Kishore Mahbubani calls a march to modernity. It began with the economic ascendancy of Japan, followed by the Four Asian Tigers, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and from there it spread to South East Asia, the ASEAN bloc. The progress of it’s neighbours inspired the Four Modernizations in China leading to an unprecedented and almost miraculous growth of the Chinese economy. This was followed by India, which combined a noisy but entrenched democracy with economic reform leading to a spur in growth led by an enterprising entrepreneurial class. (Now, with the Arab Spring it seems that the march of modernity has spread into the Muslim world.) This march to modernity in lifting vast numbers of people out of poverty is creating, according to Mahbubani, hundreds of millions of responsible stake holders in a peaceful and stable world order.

So, then, will the decisions that Asian states make regarding the interpretation of the future will reflect these aspirations? Or will they be obscured by the logic of power politics?

So, my conclusion for the question of what it means for this century to be an Asian century is this. The nomenclature will not be suitable if we are to reduce the Rise of Asia to the increasing power of China or, for that matter, India. The Asian Century should be conceived not in terms of power politics but in terms of the Asian people emerging as stake holders in the global order. 


In the previous section I reached the conclusion that the vision for an Asian century should be imagined as a developmetalist project. This is contingent upon, firstly, that Asian countries continuing their spectacular economic growth  and, secondly, that the fruits of this growth are shared equitably. This is, in fact, the determining factor in the Asia story. When Asia rises who in Asia rises?

In societies that are witnessing transformation an ‘order’ is simultaneously emerging and entrenching itself. While there is no fixed point of determination when we can say that the order has finally emerged we can examine trends. And in this lies an opportunity to examine where the society is heading and whether the shape it is taking is acceptable. What must be paid attention to regarding the nature of the model is – the spatiality of power.
John Agnew offers four models which help us to understand the distribution and relations of power. These are particularly useful to understand power relations in a historical perspective but are equally effective for understanding societies undergoing rapid transformation. I will discuss them briefly.

The first model is an ‘ensemble of worlds’ in which different cultural groups occupy distinct spaces with little interaction with other groups. The second is of ‘field of forces’ which is applicable to nation-states which occupy fixed and exclusive sovereign spaces. In this is materialist conception two or more units, in our case nation-states, exert force outwards and are held in check only by equal countervailing force, thus, maintaining stability. In case of more or less force, a mismatch, the unit either expands at the expense of others or loses territory. This model shows a classic conception of a realist worldview of state competition which gives specific importance to state-territoriality. The third model is that of a ‘hierarchy of networks.’

This model is multi-scalar and examines the spatiality of power, dispersal and relations, from within states to the global level. The hierarchy is conceived of as relations between cores, semi-peripheries and peripheries linked together into networks of flows, which illustrate regional concentrations and relative deprivations. The fourth model is of an ‘integrated world society’ which puts social grouping at the centre which communicate with other groups through a globalized networks of information regarding common global problems like environmental issues, nuclearization, the threat of war, etc. This model represents a de-territorialized and cosmopolitical vision of a political order which has the potential to stress human issues and human values.

All four of these models are co-present in any historical epoch some, usually one, predominates.  As the ‘ensemble of worlds’ model would apply to very small populations in the current age (but it is by no means insignificant) I will focus on the other three. Which of these models offers the best framework for our conception of an Asian Century considering, especially, the two vital factors of continued economic growth and equitable distribution? 

Let us imagine a perfect ‘field of forces’ model and a perfect ‘integrated world society’ as two ends of the continuum with the ‘hierarchy of networks’ model placed on a vertical axis alongside. For Asia to rise collectively and equitably it would require that there is a gradual movement away from the ‘field of forces’ model towards the ‘integrated world society’ model and, simultaneously, downward on the axis of ‘hierarchy of networks’ away from power concentrations and towards equitable distributions of power


First I will discuss issues which hold back the movement on the continuum leading to territorialization and the predominance of the logic of the state.

The first contingency that I would like to discuss is regarding the response of the USA to the rise of China. The US global strategic priorities after the end of the Cold War are predominated by the need to prevent any potential challenger to its global leadership and strategic dominance. (Quansheng Zhao) With the rapid strides that China is making, particularly in the economic realm, it appears to have emerged as a significant potential (some would say – certain) challenger to the United States. So, will the USA seek to engage with China and form associations on the basis of economic engagement, regional cooperation and work towards the creation of a conducive business environment? Or will the USA seek to ‘hedge’ against a potential future challenge form China by strengthening its alliances with Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea? Will the USA seek a strategic alliance with India to balance against China? (Whether India will accept such a role is an important contingency in itself.)

The choices that the United States makes will have a great influence on, if not a determining one, on the power dynamics and interstate relations within Asia. The major concern of the United States would be to ensure that it is not excluded from any power sharing agreement in the Asia-Pacific region. (Quansheng Zhao) This is also underlined by a recent article by the United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Foreign Policy magazine. (‘America’s Pacific Century’ , November 2011)
So, even if the United States interprets China’s growing power through the lenses of ‘power transition theory’ it’s policy options still remain open. It can either choose to contain China, balance against it and in which case, the logic of the power politics will prevail. Or it can seek to accommodate China keeping in mind that ‘if a rising power is satisfied with arrangements it will not venture to challenge the predominant state.’ (J. Diccocio and Jack Levy)

The second contingency is regarding Beijing’s strategy especially regarding how it seeks to frame the discourse of its rise and how it communicates with its neighbours. China’s foreign policy can be understood as primarily ‘focused on its modernization drive and economic development.’ (Quansheng Zhao) This requires close cooperation with the USA in many spheres and, further, good relations with the major powers, both of which China’s foreign policy successfully addresses. Also, as regards the American military presence in Asia, China does not (yet) openly challenge it. 

However, the most important factor remains how China’s neighbours view its rise. Will China’s strength be seen as an opportunity or as a threat? I mentioned earlier about the importance of Beijing’s framing the discourse of its rise, but that is only one side of the dialogue. Discourse, behaviour, events can all be interpreted from a multitude of positions resulting in different conclusions. These conclusions determine responses, reactions and policy decisions, significantly affecting movement along the continuum.


Now I will discuss an alternate conception which moves Asia along the continuum towards greater integration.

The Asian Century should be built upon the foundation of a New Asian Order which is not imposed from above, by the logic of the state, but develops from below. This requires a conceptualization of new geographies, keeping the focus on places as the settings in which the lives of people take place, and requires a movement towards building multi-scalar networks of communication which connect disparately located social groupings. In this sense, order grows as a reflection of human interests. 

Mutual interests in Asian relations are not hard to imagine. The logic of the developmentalist project undoubtedly holds that states move towards greater and greater integration and interdependence. This is, at once, a mitigation of future tendencies of balance of power politics and a cure for existing ones. It is quite clear that states balance primarily against threats (Stephen Walt) so in the envisioning a collective rise of Asia, Asian states must seek to stress on the opportunities rather than threats.

Is it conceivable to view Asia not as a jigsawed, politically fragmented map but a physical Asia, as one would see it from outer space? A physical view would tell us that the past connectivities of the spice and silk trade routes were not  historical accidents but the natural outcomes of the geography of Asia. A new vision for Asia should build upon and seek to re-kindle these traditional and natural links and flows which continue to have a powerful visibility in our cultures.

So, while pursuing the essential task of removing misperceptions and communication gaps the need of the hour is for individual visions of the countries of Asia to be fused into the common vision of realizing an Asian Century through the two vital thrusts of continuous dialogue and greater integration. And this not just between state capitals but between the peoples of Asia.

In the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are two organizations which offer potentials of building links and flows correspondent to the ancient spice and silk routes. A modern Asia can be built around a ‘concert of multilateral organizations’ facilitating constant dialogue within Asia. Promotion of cooperation with the wider world should build upon the potentials of the East Asian Community, thus, reducing apprehensions of great power politics. So, we can have concentric circles of multilateral organizations, with overlapping interests and memberships, enforcing a chain of interests and obligations, thus building trust and stressing on the opportunities of a collective rise.


Asia, in the 20th Century, had been captive to a handed down history, which has determined the self-conception and self-image of the people of Asia. This history has imposed certain ‘categories’ through which the world is understood. and, consequently, defines the scope and the nature of our relation with and to the world. The most evident category is of the imposed colonial borders, which has the dual consequence of dividing the cultural continuum of Asian civilization into ‘cage like‘ nation states, on the one hand, and threatening always to reduce the primary interaction between these new political units to conflict – the inherent tendency of the nation-state. This is contradictory to continuous dialogue between cultures and civilizations which, over millennia, has characterized the Asian mega-civilization in all its diversities and commonalities.

Next, is the loss of cultural confidence and a sub-conscious acceptance of ‘position in hierarchy’ which might reduce the progress of Asian states to emulation of the West. And in this attempt lies the trap of limitation which reduces our choices regarding, first, of the future we want to build for ourselves and, second, of how we are to get there. Kishore Mahbubani (sp) calls this a result of ‘mental colonization’ from the pale of which Asians have only now begun to emerge. Alas, it is a long and hard process, which involves not only breaking away from the shackles of the past but also conceiving of a ‘new identity’ for Asians and Asia – an Asia which, till now, itself is more or less a Western construct – being reclaimed by Asians.

So, as we stand on the crossroads today, a fundamentally crucial question confronts us – who are we? The answer to this question will determine the nature and being of the ‘new order’ – what will emerge and what will be – in Asia and the world. Will we choose to define ourselves as nation-states engaged in the endless pursuit of domination through power, or will we choose to be an Asian community which will rise together to claim its rightful place in the world?

Scott, David, ‘The 21st Century as Whose Century,’ Brunei University, Uxbridge
Hyun-Chim, Lin, ‘Globalizing Asia: Towards a New Development Paradigm’
Fidler, David P., ‘The Asian Century: Implications for International Law’, 2005:SYBIL
Gupta, Arvind, ‘Understanding the Rise of Asia: The New Asian Hemisphere,’ 32:5, 913 – 916
Zhao, Quansheng, ‘ America’s response to the rise of China and Sino-US relations,’ Asian Journal of Political Science, 13:2,1-27
Chaturvedi, Sanjay and Painter, Joe, ‘Whose World, Whose Order? Spatiality, Geopolitics and the Limits of the World Order Concept’ 2007, SAGE Publications
Agnew, John, ‘Re-visioning World Politics,’ (2nd edition) 2003: Routledge
(note : Kishore Mahbubani’s views taken from video interviews to University of Berkeley, California, Council of Foreign Relations, New York and talk entitled – Do Asians believe in the Rise of Asia at National University of Singapore, Singapore)

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