The future is Asian. Not just Chinese, but Iranian, Indian, Kazakh, Thai and Indonesian. The future is half the global population linked by a complex web of diplomacy, trade, finance, entrepreneurship and infrastructure projects stretching across a vast region, from Saudi Arabia to Japan, from Russia to Australia.
The flagship event of the Centre for International Security Studies (CISS), the 2019 Michael Hintze Lecture was presented by Dr Parag Khanna on 5 November, who shared to a full house themes from his book The Future is Asian. This year CISS, established in 2006 through a gift from Sir Michael Hintze, was fortunate to have Lady Dorothy Hintze at the lecture.
Deliberately provocative, Khanna’s talk explored the complexity of the idea of ‘Asia’. For many in the West, Asia is simply synonymous with China and the notion of the ‘Asian Century’ is taken to mean Chinese global dominance and a new world order. By others the term ‘Asian’ is incorrectly used as an ethnic rather than geographic descriptor.
For example, describing the diverse Australian population as ethnically Asian would be nonsensical; but viewing Australia as geographically and geopolitically Asian is essential for understanding its role in global affairs.
If the 20th century was defined by the bipolarity of the Cold War followed by the unipolarity of American global dominance, Khanna believes that Asia’s strength lies in its history as a multipolar region. This multipolarity is characterised simultaneously by independence and interdependence – by strong identities which inform national interests, and strong links between nations which reinforce trade, investment and diplomacy.
People may not want to hear that they are not the centre of the universe, but what if they could understand that the fact we have many constellations in the sky is actually good for them?
So while Asian cultures will not bow down to one another, Asian nations trade more with each other than with outsiders and are developing increasingly self-sufficient networks, uniting a growing proportion of the world’s population. A point of contention that Khanna often encounters is the idea that the rise of Asia necessarily means the decline of the West, but he is adamant that this is not a zero-sum game. In fact he goes further, dismissing the notion of a zero-sum game altogether for its limited vision of the global system, grounded in old US- and Euro-centric ideas about what makes a state a superpower.
Instead, Khanna proposes a multipolar system with new frames of reference that do not limit the unique status of contemporary Asia to an understanding grounded in antiquated historical analogies, such as Thucydides’ Trap, in which conflict between a rising and an established power is inevitable.
Asia today has different values systems, different aspirations, and different geography to the superpowers and empires of the past. Being home to the majority of the world’s population and the bulk of the global economy, opportunities for Asian nations are potentially much greater if they seek to consolidate influence amongst themselves, rather than stretch themselves thin trying to achieve an old European or American style of global dominance.
So, what does this Asian future look like? Khanna believes that it presents opportunities for all nations to establish genuinely global trade, diplomatic, economic and human networks.
“People may not want to hear that they are not the centre of the universe, but what if they could understand that the fact we have many constellations in the sky is actually good for them?”, he argues. According to Khanna we are experiencing an unprecedented moment in human history, that of living in a ‘totally distributed multipolar world’.
"The future is an Asia that is more than the sum of its parts," says Khanna, "but it won’t necessarily speak with one voice."