Is this the Asian Century? In a new book, Vasuki Shastry of Chatham House argues that the fabled future of Asia is far from certain. The former journalist and senior International Monetary Fund official notes that the region’s economies cannot sustain high growth forever, while growing inequality and the emergence of a greedy billionaire class that colludes with politicians are increasing social tensions. Ageing government leaders, meanwhile, lack the capacity to cope with critical challenges such as rapid technological change, global warming, and gender disparity.
In 2019, when I started writing my book Has Asia Lost It? Dynamic Past, Turbulent Future, none of the following events had yet occurred – a deadly pandemic which caused serious public health and economic damage; a surge in protests in Hongkong, Thailand, India and Myanmar; and the emergence of an all-powerful surveillance state in democracies and one-party dictatorships alike. Multiply this with pre-Covid-19 trends such as stalling social mobility, rising inequality, and a globalization-driven growth model under attack. The inescapable conclusion: There is something wrong with popular perceptions about Asia’s dynamism and its future place in the world.
The simple fact is that the Asian miracle is stalling in developing Asia, a vast swathe of the continent which includes China, India, South Asia and most of Southeast Asia. The rhetoric about a rising, shining Asia is running far ahead of reality and the next 25 years are going to be incredibly challenging for policymakers as they grapple with rising societal expectations at a time of diminishing economic opportunities.
What is impeding Asia’s fabled future? There are four principal reasons:
First, the high rates of economic growth which Asia has witnessed in the past decades cannot continue forever. Even economics must obey the law of gravity. Yet major multilateral and private-sector institutions continue to talk up Asia’s ability to sustain high growth rates well into the future. If there is one thing to be learned about economists by now, it is that they almost always get short-term and long-term forecasts wrong. So, as a start, we should stop paying attention to the predictions and assume that Asia’s pole position in the global economy is not guaranteed.
The collateral damage will be the citizens of Asia, particularly young people. Consider the impact that the Asian miracle has already had on disadvantaged teenage girls, many victims of the ills of countries that have experienced rapid progress but have lacked the capacity to ensure human security – trafficking and slavery, sexual abuse, and social strictures which prevent hundreds of millions of them from educating themselves and seizing economic opportunity, just as their male counterparts have done. Notwithstanding all the hoopla about this being the Asian Century, the region cannot seriously consider itself worthy of admiration when gender rights and opportunity are suppressed on a massive scale. A sequel to the Asian miracle is still possible but that would depend on the region going back to the basics and learning lessons from what made the first one so durable and successful.
Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute