Photo of Kishore Mahbubani Kishore Mahbubani
When Asia Emerges, How Will the World Change?
AsiaViews, Edition: April 12, 2004

Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani has published extensively in leading journals and newspapers overseas (including Foreign Affairs, the National Interest, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal).  By profession, Mr Mahbubani is a career diplomat with the Singapore Foreign Service since 1971.  His overseas postings have included Cambodia, Malaysia, the United States and the United Nations.  Currently, he is the ambassador of Singapore to the United Nations.  He was previously Permanent Secretary (Policy) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The following is a paper he presented at the Asian Voices seminar organized by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation – USA in Washington, DC on March 2, 2004.

I begin with three fundamental premises that will influence what I’m going to tell you today.  The first premise, of course, is that we live probably at a time of greatest change that anyone has ever seen.  The second premise is that one of the big changes that’s going to happen is the rise of Asia and this is inevitable.  If you’re just going to Asia, look at the number of young people going to universities, look at the number of young people entering the job market trying to work out the consequences.  What happens when you have this sudden surge of new Asian brain power in every sphere.  You can make a reasonable prediction that a consequence of this is that Asia’s weight is going to rise in the world.

The third premise that I have from my remarks is that if you look at the existing world order and you look at the structures and institutions that we have in place to take care of the world order, you will discover that most of them are not metaphorically but literally antiques, set up in 1945, in a different time, in a different era.

So on the basis of these three premises, my own gut feeling is that we can expect a lot of changes to come.  There’s no way anybody can tell you specifically what these changes will be but I can try to suggest where we should be looking at, rather than tell you what will actually happen.

There are five areas I wanted to look at in terms of looking at how the world will change.  The first area is, of course, in geopolitics.  The second area I refer to is the whole area of the multilateral institutions and structures that we have in place today, how they will be changed.  The third area, the concept of soft power - how will the area of soft power be changed by Asia’s emergence.  The fourth area I want to look at is, in a sense what I call the Asian renaissance, what will happen within Asia if it will spill over.  And the fifth and final area, the one that’s most delicate and the one that I will do so with some caution, is development in the Islamic world, and how they will impact on the world.

So let me try to go through these five areas and say a few provocative things to try to get the discussion going.  Now in the area of geopolitics, I think it’s also a given that we all know that the rise of China is by now a certainty ; other Asian powers are emerging, we all know with confidence that India will emerge.  So it’s clear that in terms of geopolitic, we will see new emerging new powers in the next decade or two.

What happens when new powers emerge? I’m going to read to you something that was written ten years ago by various Western scholars about the impact of the rise of great powers, and I want to read these passages to tell you what I think is conventional wisdom, and then try and tell you why I don’t agree with this conventional wisdom.  

This is what was said by Richard Betz ten years ago: “One of the reasons for optimism of peace in Europe is the apparent satisfaction of the great powers with the status quo, while in East Asia there is an ample pool of festering grievances with more potential for generating conflict than during the Cold War when bipolarity helped stifle the escalation of parochial disputes.”

Now, let me quote Aaron Friedberg: “While civil war and ethnic strife will continue for sometime to smolder along Europe’s peripheries, in the long run it is Asia that seems far more likely to be the cockpit of great power conflict.  Europe as the world’s primary generator of war as well as wealth and knowledge is coming to a close, but for better or for worse, Europe’s past could be Asia’s future.”

I want to read one more quote, to suggest how deeply embedded is the notion in most Western thinkers that if great powers arise, there will be conflict.  I quote Barry Buzen and Gerald Siegal, after they reviewed conflict in East Asia: “All of these historical legacies remain, and taken together they suggest political fragmentation and hostility characterizing the region’s international relations.  There is little that binds states and societies together but much that divides them.  Any chance of finding unifying common ground against the West has long since disappeared.  As the particular cautions imposed by the Cold War unravel, many historical patrons that were either suppressed or by reason of ecological or power rivalry are reappearing.  History therefore strongly reinforces the view that Asia is in danger of heading back to the future.”

When people try to look at Asia through Western eyes, it’s pretty clear that despite the enormous magnitude of the Asian financial crisis, we still did not have a conflict and the guns remain silent.  Why is that so? Why hasn’t conflict broken out? Today, if you accept the conventional wisdom that when great powers emerge and you add an economic crisis, that’s a recipe for war.  But there has been nothing close to war.  The reasons, frankly, are very complex.  

One of the reasons could be the fact that Asians maybe quietly making adjustments among themselves, watching each other, adapting, changing, but not doing it in a spectacular fashion, not going out and creating a new treaty like NATO or the European Union.  There are no such structures.  So when people see the absence of structures they say Asians are not adapting, they are caught in the past.  But no structures are needed to make changes.  Other processes can take place and if you observe in real terms how relationships have evolved in the last 10 years, it’s quite clear there have been significant changes.

I’ll give a couple of examples to illustrate how changes take place.  The most dramatic one, of course, is the case of China and Vietnam.  As late as 1989-1990, the Sino-Vietnamese border was clearly one of the most militarized borders in the world, a million men on both sides of the border, full of land mines, bristling with tension.  Today, I’m told – I haven’t gone there – the armies are gone, the land mines are gone.  Instead there is a flourishing trade between the two countries.

There was no big bang, but obviously something fundamental happened.  How did it happen? I remember as far back as 1986 when I was speaking at Columbia University in a room like this, there were three Vietnamese diplomats in the room and I was talking about Sino-Vietnamese relations.  I said that it wasn’t surprising China and Vietnam went to war.  When China succeeded in crossing into Vietnam, that also was not surprising.  What was surprising was that after Vietnam successfully, in a sense, fought the Chinese army, the Vietnamese did not do what they did in the past, which is to send emissaries to Beijing and say, “We’re terribly sorry we defeated you in the war, please accept our apologies.” And I thought I was seeing something quite heretical, until the three Vietnamese diplomats in the front row went like this.  And these were three Vietnamese diplomats who were then tied to the Soviet Union.  

So clearly, there’s history, there’s the past and there will be adjustments that will come on the basis of Asia’s past history.  It is also clear that as new powers emerge, the various Asian states will have to learn to adjust to each other.  I mean one relationship that I find very fascinating is the Sino-Japanese relationship.  In fact, there’s never been a time when both have been powerful at the same time, but the time has come when both are powerful, and as both become more powerful, how they will adjust to each other will be fascinating.

If you go by European history you have to assume when the two begin to be powerful, they will engage in a zero-sum game, that there’ll be tensions, there’ll be gunboats, there’ll be conflicts and so forth.  But it’s conceivable that they may make their own adjustments within their own cultural parameters, and it’s something that those of us who are outside can understand how it happened.  It happens when the two of them meet each other and they look at each other face to face, and they begin to adjust and decide within their hierarchy who is number one and who is number two.  It’s a very delicate game they display and they show it in the symbolic gestures in their various moves and these adjustments will happen quietly without any overt events taking place.

You can see this, to some extent, happening already in the ASEAN Plus Three summits held every year.  When the first ASEAN Plus Three summit was held four or five years ago, when China, Japan and Korea came to a room full of Asian leaders, there was an incredible amount of discomfort because they had never met with each other, and they rarely talked to each other.  They came the year after that, and the next year, and the next one.  By the third or fourth year, they started to spin off and began to meet among themselves.  They didn’t need to have the ASEAN presence anymore to meet among themselves.  This process of them talking to each other has taken off.  Again, it happened quietly, without any big event, without any fanfare.

The point I’m making is that if you try to judge Asia’s future purely on behalf of what happened in 19th or 20th century European history, you may end up not understanding or anticipating the sort of changes that will come in the region.  This doesn’t mean, by the way, that this is the end of rivalry, that it’s the end of competition.  All that will continue but the forms in which they will continue will be quite different.

There is also one important qualifying point I need to make to illustrate in some ways why it is not easy to give black and white answers.  One reason for the continuing stability in the region is the huge American presence, and that huge American presence plays a very important role.  Indeed, it is part of the single most important reason for stability in the region.  

The crucial point is that there is no push to get rid of the American presence.  Indeed, each of the parties, for their own reasons, have arrived at the conclusion that perhaps we should encourage the United States to stay because the United States’ presence, exercised here in some cases like the cork in the bottle.  If the American presence disappeared, it would foster Japan to rearm and if Japan rearms, that frankly would be bad for the region and for the world.  In that sense, the American presence also plays a role.  It is a complex game where you have American military power, American superpower presence and an Asian game going on.  All of these factors are affecting each other to work towards the stabilization of the region and therefore ensuring that what happened in Europe will not happen in the area.

Now let me turn to an area that is now completely different, about the multilateral structures that we have.  I want to give two examples to illustrate the nature of the problems we face.  I am going to refer to the UN Security Council and the International Monetary Fund.  I’m choosing them as examples because these are clearly, in real terms, the two most powerful multilateral institutions that we have.  The Security Council is powerful because it has the right to mandate the use of force and it does, in fact, deploy peacekeeping forces and has a concrete impact on the ground.  

If you look at these institutions and here I’m going to apologize for descending to some level of simplicity, but just to get the essential point out, they were created for various reasons.  One of the most important reasons why they were created is that we felt that the world leaders in those areas, in the area of peace and security for Security Council, in the area of International Monetary Fund , the IMF, is so we have something of a fire department to take care of crises, to respond to them.  

Now, in the Security Council I can say and I’ve been there for two years, while most fire departments in any city react automatically whenever fire emerges like in New York City, for example, if a fire breaks out in Park Avenue, or a fire breaks out in Harlem or Bronx, the fire department comes out automatically.  But the record of the Security Council, is that it only responds when the interest of the rich and powerful in Park Avenue is affected and not when the interest of the poor is affected; and this has been a structural flaw of the Security Council.  To some extent also, although here I’m treading on somewhat more dangerous grounds since I am not a monetary expert, I would say the same structural flaw also affects the International Monetary Fund when it is sometimes more concerned with the interest of the creditors than they are of the countries affected in a financial crisis.  

Let me just say in passing that a lot of questions remain in East Asia about the role the IMF played in the Asian financial crisis, and that affects a lot of the questioning about the multilateral institutions.

So what’s the problem here? The problem is that when these institutions respond to the interests of the powerful, they respond to the interests of those who are powerful in 1945 and not necessarily respond to the interest of those who are powerful in the year 2005.  So far, no major collision has happened between these two institutions and the rise of new powers.  But that collision inevitably will come at some point in time if you have institutions that continue to respond to the great powers of the past and not to the great powers of the future; and so it is inevitable that change has to take place in these two institutions.  

Let me just take the case of the Security Council and why change is very difficult.  Change only comes when the greatest power of the day decides it is in its interest to change the organization.  Even though the United States has on the record officially said it is in favor of changing the composition of the Security Council, the general understanding within U.N.  corridors is that the United States doesn’t want change.  In private, American diplomats tell me, it’s better not having to deal with fourteen other countries, let’s say on the Iraq question, we’re much worse when you have twenty members or twenty five members.  And so, if the greatest power of the day doesn’t want to see change, it freezes the organization.

The second reason why change is very difficult in the Security Council is that for every country that wants to come in and believes that it has the right to permanent membership, for every India there’s a Pakistan that says “why not me;” for every Brazil that wants to come in, there’s an Argentina that says “why not me;” and for every Germany that wants to come in, there’s Italy and Spain which say “why not me.” To quote the former Italian Ambassador to the U.N., “What’s so special about Germany, we lost the war too.” So you have in a sense a gridlock situation.  

The third reason why change is difficult is when the U.N.  charter was written in 1945, even though it was supposed to be a dynamic new institution, the five permanent members, the United States, then Soviet Union, China, UK, and France decided that they could agree in principle to any change in the U.N.  charter as long as they have the right to veto any change.  It’s very clear that no veto-bearing member a of the Security Council is going to voluntarily step down and give up its place in the Security Council, and that creates another logjam in change.

The reason why I point out the difficulties of changing these institution is to illustrate that if you see the world changing so fast, you see new powers emerging and you see a Council that is stuck in the past, you begin to understand why, if you look ahead at the world at large, there will be tensions and difficulties because the 1945 institutions at some point will say we have to give way to new realities.  

Let me turn very quickly to the other areas because they are much more fuzzy and much harder to get into.  The third area on the area of soft power , most of us in this room travel a great deal, we find ourselves in hotel rooms in Johannesburg, in Buenos Aires, in Sydney, in Tokyo, and when we want to stay in touch with the world, whenever we turn on the TV sets in our room, we expect to see CNN, international BBC world news, we pick up the IHT, we pick up the Wall Street Journal and we assume that this is how you monitor what is happening in the world.  

There are good reasons for this, because the news organizations that deliver the news for us are excellent.  They are wonderful, they are world-class and they have achieved levels of competence and objectivity that are very hard to re-create anew.  At the same time, all the examples that I gave are all culture-bound.  They are written by people with one set of eyes describing the world and these we believe is the only set of eyes with which to look at the world.  I think this too will have to change.

I cannot tell you how exactly we’ll change, what news organization will emerge, where the challenge will come from, but if you look from the consumers’ viewpoint, the largest growth in consumers for these sort of news products will come from Asia.  And surely at some point in time, these consumers from Asia will say, why are we looking at the world through the eyes of New York or Washington or London, and when are we going to see the world through our own eyes? One point I’m going to make is that I’m treading on politically incorrect ground, but it is important for me to register it so you know some of the sentiments I hear when I go around Asia.  

When I read some of the editorials, when I read some of the commentaries especially on Asia in many of these journals and newspapers, there’s no doubt there is a great deal of cultural condescension coming through in these journals and newspapers.  I want to register this so you know where the seeds of change are going to come from because at some point all these new Asian consumers will get tired of this cultural condescension and say it’s time for us to also have our say.

I was going to bring the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.  I don’t have it with me but if you look at the contents page and the list of writers, this is an example of how you look at the world of today, of which three billion people are Asians and not a single Asian writer in the whole magazine.  That’s natural, you say, but that’s the sort of thing that is going to change because Asian voices will have to emerge and will emerge to say, hey, we have a different point of view of the world.

I’m going to touch on two other points.  The part about the Asian renaissance, I’m going to touch for only one reason.  It is to suggest that in the world of ideas, ideas that had transformed the world in the last 50 years, there can be absolutely no doubt they have come from the West.  In a sense, the entire political and economic infrastructure of the world is built on Western ideas.  Frankly, those who live outside and the rest of the world should be grateful that such a political and economic infrastructure was created because it has enabled, not just Western societies, but other societies also to try, including Asian societies.  At some point in time, this one-way street of ideas will have to transform itself and become a two-way street of ideas.  I can anticipate it coming.  I cannot tell you precisely how it’s going to come, where it’s going to come from, but it’s something that is coming.  What will make it more interesting, by the way, is that it will not just be Asia as a bloc talking to the West, but different parts within Asia, are going to emerge and get to know each other.  

Let me just give two of these examples.  If you look at the density of human interaction, visitors and so on within China and India, it’s been remarkably low, partly because of the colonial period, partly because of other preoccupations.  But if you go back 500 or 2,000 years ago, there were many cultural exchanges taking place.  In any case, the Buddhism that went to China came from India.  But the colonial period came and in a sense sliced up Asia.  Until today, these Asian societies have not really risen above these divisions.  

But observe the travel patterns today.  You will begin to see signs of new travel patterns emerging and the most obvious one is the number of Chinese tourists coming to Southeast Asia.  That is a new phenomenon.  This sort of spillover of one Asian society to another Asian society is another change that we will see, and that will also affect the chemistry of the region.
Now, let me come very quickly to the most delicate and difficult point I want to discuss, which is the state of the Islamic world.  As you know, there are far more Muslims in Asia than in any part of the world.  In fact, the three biggest Muslim societies in Asia are in Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and clearly, all these societies want to succeed and want to modernize.  

As we all know, they are facing difficulties.  The challenge for them is deciding where they go from here.  If you look at discussions in Europe, in North America, about how to transform Islamic societies, you get these manifestos, these visions that we shall create a democratic Middle East, we shall replicate liberal democratic societies in the Middle East, the assumption being that you can take a successful Western pattern of development, parachute it into this part of the world and you will succeed in transforming the societies.

If you could take the same Middle Eastern societies and take their scholars and take their young minds and say, don’t come to the West, go to East Asia, go and see what East Asia has done and see whether you can learn from them.  I can tell you that the likelihood of success is much greater, much, much greater.  Because, even though there are cultural differences, there are also cultural affinities in Asia.  If they travel and see the success of China, they see the success of India or some Southeast Asian societies.  These success stories are more likely to have a positive impact on the Islamic world, and that hopefully will be a positive result of the rise of East Asia.

I’ve touched on many different strands only to emphasize that nobody can tell precisely how these changes are going to come.  All I can tell you for sure is that great changes will happen for certain in the next 10 to 15 years.  My final point, which I must confess is a bit of a commercial, if you want to have a good ringside view of what’s happening in Asia, consider coming to Singapore.  I make this point because I remember I had a conversation with a friend, Stanley Roth.  We were discussing Singapore and he said to me, “I tell my friends not to go to Singapore.” So I said, “why?” “Singapore is just a sterile, Western outpost, you know.  It’s just a bit of the West in Asia.”

That maybe a fair point, but if you look at the rising new countries, new forces, whether it’s China or India, or even the Islamic world, the one phase where these three cultural strands come together and live very closely together, are indeed in Singapore.  If you want to get a feel of how these cultural strands will come together eventually, maybe Singapore will give you a glimpse of it.  

By Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani

Last modified on 23 July, 2007 by Wang Deliang