The “Asia Rising” story has been written and reported about so often that it has almost come to be accepted as truth. Driven by the rise of China and more recently, that of India and Southeast Asia, the combination of massive populations, rising economies and rapid modernization means Asia is set to become the new center of the world. Even China’s recent economic slowdown has not prevented Asia bulls from maintaining their positive forecasts. Scholar and academic Michael Auslin provides a rare voice of dissent with The End of the Asian Century.
Most “Asia Rising” arguments center on economic growth and the potential of China and other Asian powers, while overlooking domestic issues and regional tensions,as if the massive cost of fulfilling the social needs of billions of Asians in China, India and Indonesia in areas such as health, education and pension was negligible, or that territorial tensions were declining rather than growing.
Auslin argues that Asian nations might instead find themselves dragged down by five significant problems: economic slowdown, demographic issues, domestic political issues, lack of regional cooperation, and the outbreak of conflicts and wars. Out of this huge continent, Auslin focuses on China, India, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia, each of whom are beset by a number of these five internal and regional problems.
The most obvious problem—slowing economic growth—has already happened to Japan and several of the Asian Tigers notably South Korea and Taiwan, and it is happening to China. While it is still increasing, China’s growth has slowed and its economy is showing signs of maturing. As such, it is counting on economic reforms, growing its services sector and moving up the technology ladder. Yet as China’s total debt grows and it continues to rely on credit and relatively unproductive infrastructure investment, China faces the risk of a serious economic slowdown. Not only would this be troublesome for China, but it would affect the economies of neighboring nations like South Korea and Singapore who rely heavily on trade with it.
Demographics affects countries in different ways—wealthy nations like Japan and South Korea are ageing as their birth rates decline to below 1.5, while developing nations like India, with over 1.2 billion people, and Indonesia, with over 200 million, have too many people and not enough jobs. Even China faces the risk of an ageing population in the 2020s when its working-age population peaks.
Arguably, the most intriguing problem is the regional unity issue. Unlike Europe or North America, Asia does not have a strong multilateral community or cooperation. ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) might be a stable regional body but even after exactly 50 years of existence, its cooperative efforts beyond economic trade are still miniscule. Despite covering a region with a population of over 600 million people, Auslin points out that ASEAN’s secretariat in Indonesia only has 60 people, one-tenth of the European Commission. Also, when disasters like the 2004 Indonesian tsunami or the 2015 Rohingya boat refugee crisis occurred, ASEAN members were not able to provide much aid or resolution.
What ASEAN does do right is getting its members and major powers like China, Japan and India to gather regularly at meetings. While these do not accomplish much, they at least allow Asian nations to interact in a multilateral setting. As Auslin explains, up until the last century, Asia was dominated by India and China, both of whom fostered subservient relations with other nations and kingdoms within their own spheres. Indeed, neither China nor India have genuine allied relationships with their neighbours, unlike the US and Canada, or Australia and New Zealand.
And when one looks at the South China Sea, with multiple nations harboring competing claims for islets and parts of the sea and China being the most assertive and aggressive, it is not farfetched to believe that military conflict can break out in the near future. There are also territorial disputes in the East China Sea between China and Japan as well as South Korea with the latter. That is not to mention the troubling North Korea problem, which needs no explanation.
As societies prosper and develop, it is natural that people will want more freedoms. This was true for South Korea, Taiwan and several Southeast Asian nations. But China has instead increased censorship and the arrests of activists and journalists, showing little sign of opening up politically. Meanwhile, democracies like Malaysia, Indonesia and India are under challenge from resurgent nationalist and radical religious movements as well as beset by serious corruption.
These significant problems put Asia at serious risk of conflict and economic stagnation. The way, according to Auslin, to manage these risks is to foster greater cooperation between the US and its regional allies like Japan and India, in trade, democratic exchanges and NGO support. The US must not withdraw from the region, but stay and maintain its role as the regional policeman. Obviously, such a move would have containing China as one of the main objectives. Meanwhile, greater free trade among Asia-Pacific nations would promote more prosperity and reduce the chances of economic stagnation. Auslin points to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as one such regional venture, though it seems to be stuck for now after Donald Trump withdrew the US in March. These proposals, especially the one advocating creating a regional democratic network, seem somewhat idealistic, which Auslin admits, and it is doubtful whether that is feasible with the current US administration.
If there is one flaw with the book, it is that its vast scope, in terms of the number and size of the countries covered, means some of the issues are not covered adequately and sometimes feel like a detailed summary than a persuasive argument. As it is, Auslin provides a good overview of the political, economic and social state of several countries, but skeptics may need more to be convinced.
The “Asia Rising” story might still continue for some time. But the issues detailed by Auslin might become a harsh reality for several of the major Asian nations in the near future. Despite the constant hype about China becoming the new superpower and India and ASEAN on the rise, there is still a ways to go before the Asian century becomes a reality.