As a child in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s, I had direct experience of the poverty that was prevalent throughout most of Asia in the period. When I started primary school, I was put on a special feeding program because I was undernourished. Our home had no flush toilet until I was thirteen. I also experienced ethnic riots in which my neighbours were beaten up. Singapore’s per capita income at its independence in 1965 was the same as Ghana’s: US$500 a year.
Singapore was also a British colony until I turned fifteen. Most historians portray British colonial rule as relatively enlightened. In many ways, it was. However, the psychological consequences of colonial rule were devastating: it created a deep sense of inferiority. Most young people in my time saw little hope for Singapore or for Asia. We thought that the only way to secure a better future for ourselves was to emigrate to Europe or the United States.
As a young adult, as I travelled and lived in different parts of Asia, I saw a lot of pain and grief. As the chargé d’affaires of the Singaporean embassy in Phnom Penh in 1973-74, I lived in a city that was shelled virtually every day by the Khmer Rouge. With each passing month, the siege of the city grew tighter and tighter. And when I visited the neighbouring countries of Laos and Vietnam, I also saw conflict. Right into my late twenties, I saw little hope for Asia.
Against this backdrop, the economic and social success stories of Asia have been nothing short of remarkable. Singapore’s per capita income has soared from US$500 to over US$50,000 per annum. Singapore’s story is not exceptional, however. China’s GDP has gone up more than ninety-one times, from US$89 to US$8,123, in the past fifty years. India’s has grown sixteen times, from US$104 to US$1,709. Even previously conflict-ridden countries have experienced progress. Cambodia’s per capita GDP is now US$1,270, a thirteen-fold increase since the end of the first phase of its civil war in 1975. No country has suffered as much conflict as Vietnam did from 1954 to 1990. But in 2016, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said: “In just thirty years, Vietnam has reduced extreme poverty from 50 per cent to roughly 3 per cent — an astounding accomplishment.”
If you were searching for a metaphor to describe the success stories of Asia, what would you choose? A dragon waking up after centuries of slumber? A flock of geese flying in formation? Either of these would capture the exceptional flight that the Asian economies have taken. But what does Michael Auslin, author of The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region, pick? He crawls into a tunnel dug by North Korea to penetrate into South Korea. This tunnel, he says, “is a metaphor for all of Asia”. In his choice of metaphors, Auslin fails to understand or explain the remarkable transformation of Asia. For an Asian like me, who has lived through this period, it is clear that the author sees Asia through a glass darkly. “To put it starkly,” he says, “what we are seeing today may be the beginning of the end of the Asian century.” In the same preface, he says that he wants to warn “prudent investors, managers, diplomats and policymakers” of the risks in the Indo-Pacific region.
Social scientists make a distinction between the notion of risk (a condition where we can assign probabilities to the event happening/not happening) and uncertainty (a condition where we cannot assign such probabilities). If Auslin wants to use the term risk rigorously, he needs to go beyond just cherrypicking where Asia could go wrong. He should say, for example, that there’s a 70 per cent chance of war by 2030, or something to that effect. This would make his thesis credible, but he didn’t do this.
When I lived in New York in the 1980s, both Harlem and the Bronx were in bad shape. If I had written a book then, saying that we were seeing the end of New York, I would have been proven wrong. This is the mistake that Auslin makes. He sees only the dark side, ignoring the success stories.
Equally importantly, he fails to see the resilience that the region has developed. He is right in pointing out that Asia still faces many challenges. However, the region has quietly developed a culture of pragmatism to manage challenges. As a result, even though many informed observers predicted conflict between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and between China and Southeast Asian states over the South China Sea in 2014, no such conflict occurred. This was not a consequence of luck, but of careful and patient diplomacy.
If Auslin’s portrayal of the region were correct, we would have seen regular eruptions of conflict. Yet, quite remarkably, the guns have been silent since the end of the Cold War. His book fails to explain this period of peace and growth in the region.
Even more shocking than this flawed book are the positive reviews it has received in the Western press, including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and National Interest. Their enthusiastic endorsement only confirms the wishful thinking among Western intellectuals that Asia’s rise is just a blip. They would prefer to see the continuation of the past two centuries of Western domination of world history. Western scholars on Asia, it seems, need to begin some serious introspection. They need to ask themselves: are they preparing their populations for not just an Asian century but an Asian millennium?
The biggest change that has occurred in much of Asia has been the growth of cultural confidence. When the West trampled all across Asia, Asians felt inferior. Their performance, consequently, was also sub par. But this inferiority complex has disappeared. Asians today believe that they can perform as well as, if not better than many other societies. This confidence will propel Asian societies to greater heights in the decades ahead. The ability to feel this pulse and appreciate its power is not evident in Auslin’s book.
Kishore Mahbubani was the former dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy