By Ming Lee
As we enter the 21st year of the 21st century, it is now clearer than ever that there has been another shift in the status-quo regarding global affairs. In the 18th century, the British Empire rose to dominate the world with their industrial expansion. A century later, America emerged from the Second World War as the world’s superpower. Now in the 21st century, the world has once again been shocked, this time by the Covid-19 Pandemic, and it seems that it may be the catalyst required for Asia to take America’s place.
Prior to the era of the Pandemic, the widely accepted consensus of the West dominating the global economy was already being dispelled. The US may have dominated the world for the past century, but as they remained the largest world power economically, Asian countries had already been growing rapidly for a number of years, experiencing many economic booms. The world may have failed to notice Japan and the Tiger Economies’ miracle growths, but the spotlight is now on Asia as China’s development takes the stage.
The most drastic change in perspectives occurred when the world was overcome with the Covid-19 virus, and the world watched as governments were thrown from their comfort zones and forced to fight to contain the virus. Never before had there been an opportunity to compare every single governments’ capabilities in response to an unprecedented threat like this, and the result of this ‘experiment’ has highlighted shortcomings of those at the top that may not have otherwise been brought forward.
During the initial timeline of the virus, the West’s relatively laissez-faire attitude towards governance contrasted with the East’s strict response. As the UK government told Britons to wash their hands more, the city of Wuhan had been placed into an unprecedented lockdown which even went beyond World Health Organisations’ (WHO) guidance. Despite face masks being prevalent in Asia, not only during the Covid-19 pandemic but also during the previous SARS outbreak, many Western countries disputed the effectiveness of masks, and many anti-mask sentiments were displayed by many Western authority figures. After months of stating that masks had no effect on the virus, the UK government mandated that face coverings had to be worn indoors only in July. Despite the obvious effect of the virus in Asia, and Asia’s better experience in responding to outbreaks, why did Western countries not follow in the footsteps on Asia’s response?
This lack of taking guidance from Asian countries goes to emphasise Western economies’ hubris. A politically polarised USA failed to agree on a basic public health strategy, and the UK plunged its country into lockdown after lockdown, with its strategy being best described as one U-turn after the other. All the while, Asian countries such as South Korea implemented strict, effective and technologically advanced contact tracing systems, creating a system to effectively manage the virus that was twice as effective as efforts from the US or UK at the time. For the first time in history, residents of Western countries were asking “Why can’t we do what South Korea has done?”
The difference in the handling of the virus by the different governments draws to attention the basic competency of the governments, and also deeper cultural differences that affected the receptiveness to responses. The difference is clearly shown when looking at the different sentiments that are shown towards leaders in the different countries. Linking back to a prominent focus of meritocracy in Confucian culture that still influences cultures in many Asian countries, most Asian citizens believe that those in positions of leadership are highly qualified and are the best fit for the job. On the contrary, many will agree that many leaders in the West are not qualified or experienced. For example, only the top graduating students can gain entry to roles in the Chinese Communist Party, whilst the currently incumbent American President is a former reality-TV personality with no former experience in politics.
Now as Asian countries emerge from the pandemic, and Western countries are still in the midst of it, there seems to be a new admiration that has not been seen before of Asian countries. The tables are now turned as Asian countries question the West’s lack of competent governance, they begin to once again grow and thrive at a time where the rest of the world are at a standstill.
There are two main differences in Asia’s future growth that differentiate it from its past development. First of all, Asia is beginning to rely more on intra-regional trade, becoming more ‘Asian’. As Asian countries continue to achieve growth by trading with the rest of the world, they are now putting a larger focus on growth in trade within Asia. As Brexit complicates trading relations in Europe and as the US increasingly isolates itself by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, Trans-Pacific Partnership and World Health Organisation, Asia is focusing on streamlining its intra-regional trade in several dimensions.
The recently agreed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which involves multiple Asian countries that combined hold nearly a third of global GDP and population is now the world’s largest trading bloc and is yet another way that Asia is simplifying the way trade occurs within the region. Taking charge of global GDP growth after the pandemic, the agreement is estimated to increase global national income by $168bn in the next ten years.
Additionally, with historical links to the Silk Road from the Han Dynasty, increasing investment in urban infrastructure has mainly been driven by China’s Belt and Road initiative, which connects China and other Asian countries to the rest of the world. Not only will the infrastructure facilitate easier trade from East to West, but also from North to South within Asia. The multiplier effect to GDP created from the better trade links will see Asia’s share of global consumption rise by 10% by the year 2040.
The second difference in Asia’s current growth is that the region is now experiencing a fourth wave of growth. In the past, Asia had experienced three waves of growth with Japan coming first, followed by the ‘Tiger’ economies (Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore), and most recently China. Now, the fourth wave of growth in Asia will consist of Southeast Asian countries such as Pakistan, India, and what are referred to as the “Tiger Cub” Economies. As these countries improve education and health care provision, as well as focusing on digitalising their economies, they experience high GDP growth rates which warrants predictions of prosperity in the future.
However, Asia is a non-homogenous and complicated region, with success in one area not implying success in another. For instance, most of the growth and development in the continent so far has come from Eastern Asian countries. Even with infrastructure investments and a free trade agreement that should benefit the whole of Asia, it is still likely to benefit the already developed nations, such as Japan, China and South Korea the most. The RCEP may convey that the region is one that is united, but the notable lack of India as part of the agreement reminds us of the ongoing tensions between China and India that are cited to be a main reason of the withdrawal. Social issues are also an important factor that cannot be ignored whilst evaluating Asia’s growth and success. Even though China is set to overtake the USA and have the highest GDP in less than ten years, the country has a history of a lack of regard for human rights issues, such as the imprisonment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
As we are beginning to look beyond the Pandemic and into a future without it, we can see that it is Asia that has emerged from it as winners. With more growth in trade in Asia than anywhere else in the world, and with 50% of growth in consumer demand in the next decade directly coming from Asia, it is clear that Asia has already risen to become the world superpower. The future of Asia’s growth both economically and politically will not be a straightforward path though. As Asia solidifies its place at the top and continues to become a larger player in global affairs, more and more attention will be drawn to the region. Growing concerns from the rest of the world will need to be addressed, but it is without a doubt that the Asian century is not within our future, but in our present.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.