Parag Khanna is the Singapore-based founder of FutureMap, a global strategic advisory company, as well as the author of numerous books including The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order (2008), How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance (2011), and Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilizations (2016). The Diplomat’s Krzysztof Iwanek talked to him about his new book The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century.
If the future is “Asian,” then what is Asia? You assume it will be the world’s most important continent, but this geographical notion itself may be a bit arbitrary. Geographers could have as well term Eurasia or “EuraAfroAsia” one continent.
You have met the famous journalist Paul Salopek whom you quote as calling Asia a “loosely knitted” “vast mosaic of microworlds.” Shouldn’t we rather consider the rise of particular Asian countries? And which ones?
Asia is a vast region stretching from the Mediterranean and Red Seas in the west to the Sea of Japan in the east, and spans much of Russia to Australia. Asia and Europe share the Eurasian continent, but unlike in the colonial era where Europe dominated Asia’s economies, now Asians trade more with each other than with either Europe or North America. So whatever our understanding of geography, we need to appreciate that rising connectivity is bringing Asia’s closer together into a new version of historical Silk Road eras. This also means that we cannot and should not understand Asia merely as a collection of diffuse civilizations simply because of Asia’s vastness and diversity. Historically, language, culture, religion and many other forces have flowed across Asia making them more relatable to each other than we tend to appreciate from the outside. Asia’s economic rise today is most certainly the result of Asians contributing to each other’s growth through investment and trade rather than a set of isolated stories. And now they share inside-out institutions as well such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). These institutions include European and African states as well, hence there is a section of this book about the return of “Afroeurasia.”
When it comes to China, do you subscribe to the popular opinion that its rise must lead to a military conflict? If so — or if not — why?
That is just a scenario, not a reality or necessity. China’s rise is occurring in Asia, not in Europe, where most of our theoretical models come from. But Asians have a long history of multipolarity and co-existence among major civilizations. They do not think of rise and decline, alliances and power transitions, the way Western theory presumes for itself. Only the Mongols truly dominated Asia, and the Japanese attempt at pan-Asian hegemony failed. China seems like an unstoppable force, but Asia is full of immovable objects such as India, Russia and Iran, each with a vision for its own central place in the Asian and Eurasian order. China is learning that it must accommodate them as much as the reverse.
You are based in Singapore. What is the view of the rising U.S.-China rivalry from there?
Like most countries in Asia, Singapore is apprehensive about the U.S.-China rivalry. But it is also a shrewd practitioner of what I call multi-alignment, maintaining friendly relations with all sides. This benefits Singapore and ASEAN when it comes to the trade war as we are seeing a significant acceleration of the diversion of foreign investment from China towards ASEAN.
You call Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative “the most significant diplomatic project of the twenty-first century,” and the equivalent of the “founding of the United Nations and the World Bank plus the Marshall Plan all rolled into one.”
Isn’t this an exaggerated view that repeats Beijing’s narrative? I think BRI is not an international organization with formal membership, it is a series of loans for projects rather than a new infrastructure network and it seems to be going through a weaker phase now. What do you make of it?
Well before Belt and Road had a name, I began writing about China’s major infrastructural forays into Central Asia and documenting them in my first book The Second World. This is a reminder that whether or not the Belt and Road brand succeeds, the reality of the need to bridge the infrastructure deficit persists and has grown as populations bulge and economies grow. BRI does not ever have to become a formal inter-governmental organization, but through the AIIB and BRI courts, it clearly is becoming more formalized in some respects. In this book I provide much evidence of the blowback against certain unfair terms with China, but the bigger story is that China has unleashed an infrastructure arms race where ever more powers want to be involved in building out Asian connectivity. This means that the Belt and Road mission will persist irrespective of what name it carries.
You point out another important process: Southeast Asia “takes on the mantle of ‘factory of the world.'” Which countries of this region do you think will mostly benefit from this – and why? How will this change their position given that so far East Asian countries are mostly behind this process?
We have been seeing Southeast Asia’s rising role in global supply chains for more than a decade. The process has very much been led by Japan and South Korea, and now increasingly by China itself, as these high-wage economies shift production to lower-wage ASEAN. Western investors are starting to do the same as well, collectively propelling the region up the value chain. The countries that are benefiting the most have been those most favoring trade liberalization agreements such as TPP and RCEP like Vietnam and Indonesia.
In your book you mentioned that some of Asia’s “significant Muslim countries are […] prioritizing a subordination of Islam to pragmatic governance.” Some of your examples are banning of radical Islamist groups in Pakistan or Mohammed bin Salman’s “liberalization program” in Saudi Arabia. Later, however, the Saudi government disappointed the West and in Pakistan the new PTI government is closer to the army, I think, and hence to certain Islamist groups. Don’t you think extremist religious groups, including Islamist ones, may play a disruptive role in some Asian countries?
There is no question that there are radical Islamist groups and parties across Asia, but it is far more significant that countries from Pakistan through Indonesia have managed to sustain democracy and subordinate Islamist parties. West Asian countries can certainly learn from East Asian ones in this regard.
The last question must be devoted to India, the country you come from. The trajectory of your life itself is an indication of India’s globalization and the “Asianization” of the globe (as you would you call it, I guess). What do you think will be the role of India in Asia in the coming decades?
India is finally on the path to achieving its potential. Its population is soon to exceed that of China, its economy is growing faster, its infrastructure investment levels have risen dramatically, the government is enacting significant reforms, foreign investment is coming in strongly. It is continuing to urbanize and digitize as well. India still needs to resolve regional disputes such as with Pakistan and convince powers from the GCC to ASEAN that it is a predictable geopolitical anchor of the region, but it is certainly on the right track.