The 2012 Annual Meeting of the International Monetary Fund was held on 12 October 2012 through 14 October 2012 in Japan. Responding to a question at a Press Briefing on 11 October 2012 in Tokyo regards the emerging political tensions between China and Japan over the group of islands in the East China Sea, which Japan administers but over which both countries claim sovereignty, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde could not have been clearer: “We hope that differences, however longstanding, can be resolved harmoniously and expeditiously so that cooperation can continue and can be beneficial not only to the Asia Pacific Region, but also to the global economy, because we are all very closely interconnected.”
THE POLITICS BEHIND THE ECONOMICS
Asia’s robust economic performance over the three decades preceding 2010, compared to that in the rest of the world, made perhaps the strongest case yet for the possibility of an Asian Century. By the early 21st century, however, a strong case could be made that this Asian performance was not just sustainable but held a force that could significantly alter the distribution of global political power.
The Asian Century is a term describing the belief that, if certain demographic and economic trends persist, the 21st century will be dominated by Asian politics and culture, as the 20th century is sometimes referred to as the American Century, and the 19th century the British Century. Coming in its wake, global leadership in a range of significant areas—international diplomacy, military strength, technology, and soft power—might also, as a consequence, be assumed by one or more of Asia’s nation states. It is warned, however, that the Asian Century is not preordained.
The significant economic rise in the Asian region has dominated most discussions on The Asian Century. However, it is established that traditionally, a new era in international relations and global realities ought to be pervasive, extending to aspects of culture, politics and religion.
A report titled Asia 2050: Realizing the Asian Century, released last year in August by the Asian Development Bank highlights multiple risks and challenges those Asian leaders need to manage if political power in the region is to be sustained: Growing inequality within countries, in which wealth and opportunities are confined to the upper echelons are undermining social cohesion and stability; Many Asian countries will not be able to make the necessary investments in infrastructure, education and government policies that would help them avoid a Middle Income Trap; Intense competition for ﬁnite natural resources, such as land, water, fuel or food, as newly afﬂuent Asians aspire to higher standards of living; Global warming and climate change, which could threaten agricultural production, coastal populations, and numerous major urban areas; and the rampant corruption, which plagues many Asian governments.
TOWARDS A MUTLI – POLAR WORLD ORDER
Despite forecasts that predict the rising political strength of Asia, the idea of an Asian Century has faced criticism. This has included the possibility that the continuing high rate of growth could lead to revolution, economic slumps, and environmental problems, especially in mainland China. Some believe that the 21st century will be multi-polar, and no one country or continent will have such a concentration of influence.
Proponents of the Asian Century respond that since the two most populous countries, China and India are in Asia then it’s only natural that they will play a bigger role in world affairs than smaller countries and thus it won’t be a multipolar century. However, this is why advocates of the Asian Century don’t think one country will dominate world affairs, just that Asia will, primarily China and India. But even today Japan and South Korea are also rather important partly because both are world leaders in information technology.
THE ASIAN VERSUS THE GLOBAL
Skeptics argue that it is premature to proclaim an Asian Century. They argue that Asia has no decision center, nor coordinating institutions comparable to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union. This is important, because, whereas the West is relatively at peace with itself, Asia is riddled with actual conflicts, and also looming ones. This school of thought contends that in many ways, Asia’s undeniable progress reflects its conversion to Western values: Capitalism, democracy, individualism, gender equality, and secularism are Western notions that have been adopted in Asia. Hence, they argue that we have not entered the Asian Century but have rather entered the first Global Century.
LACK OF CONSENSUS DETERRING POLITICAL POWER
The global political position of China and to a lesser extent India has risen in international bodies and amongst the world powers, leading the United Statesand European Union to become more active in the process of engagement with these two countries. China is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Although India is not a permanent member, it is possible that it will become one or at the least gain a more influential position. Japan is also attempting to become a permanent member, though the attempts of both are opposed by other Asian countries.
Lack of consensus within the region is bound to deter chances of improving a global political position and decision – making centre for Asia. There is no guarantee, however, that this cannot change with time. The need for reform of permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council to reflect changes in the global redistribution of power including to the Asian region, was examined in this column in an article titled ‘Will the Global South be given a Permanent Voice at the United Nations Security Council?’ published on 15 October 2012.
THE AMERICAN POSITION
Whatever the skeptics and critics contend, the American position is clearly more than mere anecdotal evidence for the importance of Asia for the United States and the world in general. The American Pivot to Asia, as it is now called, was declared by President Barack Obama in January this year, and was discussed in detail, including its implications for the South Asian region, in this column in an article titled ‘America Pivots to Asia while a Giant Awakens’ published on 18 September 2012.
The pronouncements of the United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in September this year at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit held in Russia, and that of the United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in June this year at the Shangri – La Dialogue convened in Singapore are the most recent expressions of the significant shift in American security and foreign policy establishments.
THE SRI LANKAN POSITION
Established is the fact that two key players in a potential Asian Century are India and China, both of which are gaining increasing relevance to Sri Lanka’s positioning both nationally and internationally. Sri Lanka too is keenly aware of the importance of both countries in the region and seems to maintain a careful balance of the respective interests.
However, it must be remembered that Sri Lanka’s role in the region goes much further than its relationship with India and China, and are intrinsic to its own strategic geopolitical positioning: Sri Lanka’s central geographic position in the Indian Ocean Region has been critical since trading in the sixth century where ships would pass through from India, Persia, Ethiopia and other countries from all corners of the globe.