Kishore Mahbubani on the dawn of the Asian century
The West’s incompetent response to the pandemic will hasten the power-shift to the east
HISTORY HAS turned a corner. The era of Western domination is ending. The resurgence of Asia in world affairs and the global economy, which was happening before the emergence of covid-19, will be cemented in a new world order after the crisis. The deference to Western societies, which was the norm in the 19th and 20th centuries, will be replaced by a growing respect and admiration for East Asian ones. The pandemic could thus mark the start of the Asian century.
The crisis highlights the contrast between the competent responses of East Asian governments (notably China, South Korea and Singapore) and the incompetent responses of Western governments (such as Italy, Spain, France, Britain and America). The far lower death rates suffered by East Asian countries is a lesson to all. They reflect not just medical capabilities, but also the quality of governance and the cultural confidence of their societies.
What has shocked many in Asia is the reluctance of some Western governments to allow science—and basic epidemiological modeling—to determine the policy responses. After its initial missteps in Wuhan (which were clearly disastrous), China firmly deployed good science and robust public policy measures to break the back of the problem. It responsibly released the genetic data as soon as Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the virus on January 12th.
A half century ago, had a similar global pandemic broken out, the West would have handled it well and the developing countries of East Asia would have suffered. Today the quality of governance in East Asia sets the global standard. The leaders who turned their countries around, such as Deng Xiaoping in China and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, planted the seeds of knowledge, internationalism and order in their societies. These have blossomed into a respect for science and technology, a culture of pragmatism, a willingness to learn best practices from around the world and a desire to catch up with the West. These went along with deep investments in critical public goods such as education, health care and the environment.
The result is that the post-covid-19 world will be one in which other countries look to East Asia as a role model, not only for how to handle a pandemic but how to govern more generally.
Ever since Ronald Reagan declared, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” in his inaugural address in 1981, there has been a progressive delegitimisation and consequently, demoralisation, of public services in America. President Donald Trump didn’t create this problem. He aggravated it. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta was one of the most globally-respected agencies. Yet Mr Trump proposed to cut the CDC’s budget even after covid-19 emerged. The world gasped in horror.
By contrast, East Asian societies have believed in the wise insight of Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in economics, that for societies to succeed they need the invisible hand of free markets and the visible hand of good governance. China now arguably has the most meritocratic government in the world. The post-covid-19 world will see China accelerate both for the public’s benefit—and the balance of strong markets and good governance will be an appealing model for other countries.
China was a feudal society for thousands of years and the brains of the vast majority at the bottom of society were never used. Given the tribulations it suffered in its “century of humiliation” from the mid 19th and 20th centuries, China understands well the dangers of a weak government. And because the Chinese psyche fears chaos more than any other force, the people welcome a strong state. The public’s trust in its leaders has been enhanced by the successful response to covid-19.
Clearly there are sharp differences between the communist system of China and the societies of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore. Yet one feature they share in common is a belief in strong government institutions run by the best and the brightest. This emphasis on meritocracy also has deep roots in Confucian culture. The entry bar to the Chinese Communist Party is set very high: only the top graduating students are admitted. Equally importantly, the rising levels of competent governance is both fuelled by, and contributes to, rising levels of cultural confidence. All this is gradually eroding the natural deference to the West that used to be the norm in Asia.
Taken together, the competence and confidence of East Asia will reshape the world order. It has already begun. Twenty years ago, no Chinese national ran any United Nations organisation. Today they oversee four: the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the UN Industrial Development Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Organisation. If the International Monetary Fund and World Bank remain bastions of Western power, insisting that only Europeans and Americans can run the shop, they will progressively lose their credibility unless they allow Asians (as well as Africans and Latin Americans) to manage them. Failure to adapt hurts any organism—including international organisations.
The rules-based global order was a gift by the West to the world after the second world war. Will China overturn it when it becomes the world’s undisputed economic power, as it eventually will? Here is the good news. As the current, biggest beneficiary of this order (since China is already the world’s largest trading power), the country will preserve the rules. However China will systematically try to reduce American influence in international organisations. In early 2020 China put up a candidate to run the World Intellectual Property Organisation. America campaigned ferociously against her. In the end, a neutral candidate from Singapore won. This provides a foretaste of fractious battles to come.
Even Europeans are becoming disenchanted with an American-led world order. Few will forget that in the same week that the Trump administration banned travel from Europe (without any advance notice), the Chinese government sent medical equipment including masks, ventilators, protective suits and doctors to Italy and Spain. This is why the Group of Seven countries resisted pressure by America to call covid-19 the “Wuhan virus” in a communique after a virtual meeting in March.
However, this does not mean the world will shift to a solely China-led order. Countries do not want to be forced to choose between China and America, as I document in my latest book, “Has China Won?” (Public Affairs, 2020). There will still be concerns over China’s rise, especially among its neighbours. No one feels comfortable sharing a small room with an elephant, no matter how benign.
Most would welcome a continuing American presence to balance China’s influence. Yet they wish to see a competent and careful American presence, not one that forces them to choose between the two systems—as if America’s “with us or against us” ethos were the only options.
To maintain its role and its respect, America will have to demonstrate remarkable diplomatic dexterity. Yet its foreign service has never been more demoralised; the Chinese one never more confident. Fortunately, all is not lost for America. In South-East Asia, for example, there remain huge reservoirs of goodwill after many years of American engagement in the region, which its diplomats can tap.
As China’s weight in global affairs grows, it will have to take on greater responsibilities. America has progressively walked away from the family of United Nations institutions. China has not, and may use its new confidence to take on a larger role. For example, before the pandemic the World Health Organisation (WHO) had been weakened by an effort led by the West, starting in the 1970s, to reduce the share of funding that member states are obliged to pay and make the majority of its budget come from voluntary contributions. Today, some 80% of WHO’s budget is voluntary. China could demonstrate global leadership by calling for a charge to restore the mandatory funding to its earlier level of around 60%, since WHO can only develop long-term capabilities on the basis of predictable, compulsory contributions.
But that may just be a start. The world after the crisis may see a hobbled West and a bolder China. We can expect that China will use its power. Paradoxically, a China-led order could turn out to be a more “democratic” order. China doesn’t want to export its model. It can live with a diverse multi-polar world. The coming Asian century need not be uncomfortable for the West or the rest of the world.