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Is this an Asian Century?


Samir Kumar Das


University of North Bengal

Professor of Political Science (now on lien)

University of Calcutta



It is now fashionable to argue that power in the international context has shifted from the West – from the US and Europe - to the East, more precisely to the Asian countries. In this brief note, I propose to revisit this argument.

My engagement with this argument first of all leads me to drive home that if the much publicized ‘Rise of Asia’ has happened in the new century, it has ‘risen’ by following the same track already charted out by the West since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In simple terms, we continue to live in a world where the discursive terms of the ‘rise’ are defined by the West. All the seven parameters that Kishore Mehboobani has so meticulously and albeit lucidly inventoried in his book The New Asian Hemisphere explaining the rise of Asia also at the same time reflect the modalities of the West’s rise to power. (Incidentally these seven parameters are: Free Market Economy, Science and Technology, Meritocracy, Pragmatism, Culture of Peace, Rule of Law and Education.)

Secondly, I also argue that the rise of Asian power does not by any chance signify the rise of democratic power. In fact, rise of Asia implies a threat to the democratic prospects of Asia. Accordingly this brief note is divided into two parts: nature of Asian power and the threats to Asian democracy.


Asia has never viewed ‘power’ in International Relations in the way the West has done it. Now that Asia is believed to have come of age and registered a rise, it has - only by shifting away from how it has normatively viewed itself as powerful. Ironically, the rise of Asia as a Power therefore marks a perceptive decline of Asian power. The price we pay for the rise takes a toll on our self-reflexivity as a Power.

The history of Modern Indian Political Thought may be cited as an instance for it bears ample testimony to how the rise of Asia as a power also marks the perceptible decline of distinctively Asian Power. Here I propose to prepare an inventory of Asian power:

First, it will not be an exaggeration if we say that the distinction between the West and the East runs through the core of Modern Indian Political Thought. What Swami Vivekananda calls ‘Jatiya Bhav’ (national spirit) has to do with how countries of Asia and Europe look upon themselves differently and act accordingly. Thus, the West is perpetually uncomfortable with its own self – continuously seeks to expand beyond the hemisphere – it stretches itself far and wide through war and colonial conquests by way of defeating and most importantly refusing to learn from others. All wars in history begin with the complete exhaustion of the necessity of learning from others. In its self perception, the West has known the Truth of the world and does not have to learn further. On the other hand, the East – Asia in particular – prefers to look upon itself as being always at peace with its own self, never imposing itself on others. This inward nature of the self has provided her with the opportunity of self-reflexivity and introspection, high spiritual thinking. So while for the West power is oriented towards others, in the East, power is oriented towards the self. Nehru in his Discovery of India is very critical of that internationalism that in the name of creating international consolidations masquerades as props of colonialism and colonial power even in postcolonial countries.

If their respective definitions of power are believed to be divergent, then there remain two dimensions of such power that need to be clarified: One, how does such power accrete itself into ‘Asia’ - conceptualizing a vast array of countries into a single and fairly homogeneous category? The answer is available in the writings of Tagore – who argues that Asia is more of a civilization than a mere medley of nation-states located geographically within the landmass of Asia. Since such nations form one civilization, the distinctions between nation-states and national boundaries are never too strong to restrain them from being parts of that singular entity called ‘Asia’. Modern Indian Political Thought bears the distinct Asian signature. For him, being national or for that matter being Indian on the one hand and being international on the other hand are not in conflict with each other. For him, ‘Bharatchinta’ (the thought of India) is not merely Indian but is also a worldview.

Two, the second dimension is: how does Asia negotiate with the West? The answer provided in the Modern Indian Political Thought is clearly two-fold: On the one hand, it is suggested that the West will realize its own inadequacies – by discovering on its own – maybe at great cost - that its urge for perpetual expansion is ultimately unsustainable. It must take lessons from the East – from Asia. This will be like asking the West to bend on its knees. On the other hand, it is also suggested that if it does not take lessons from Asia then it heads for sure disaster by paying a heavy price of bloodshed and destruction. This was the sentiment that Tagore expressed in one of his essays entitled ‘Crisis of Civilization’ which he wrote at the heyday the Second World War only a few months before he breathed his last.

The two examples that illustrate the blurring of the distinction between nation and civilization are (a) India’s initial orientation towards the Partition refugees and (b) India’s invocation of ‘Civilizational Asian neighbours’ (as Pranab Mukherjee, the then Minister of External Affairs put it) while making a plea for India looking east. I have argued how Indian State in the immediate aftermath of Independence looked upon the Partition refugees as people who need to be regularized as Indian citizens. The newly born republic thought it to be its responsibility towards those who were displaced by an event for which they could not be faulted. The Indian State, as I argued in the same essay, was guided by a civilizational idea of Indian nationhood. Similarly the policies that have been under way since the early 1990s and are now generically called ‘India’s Look East policy’ are couched in the imperative of opening up to the ‘powerhouse’ economies of South East Asia on the ground that we had had long and enduring ties with them and they happen to be our ‘Civilizational Asian Neighbours’.      

Those who conceptualize the world through the prism of Powershift in favour of Asia refer to how power has shifted to such Asian countries as India, China and Japan. While this is certainly not the power that these Asian nations would have normatively loved to wield and exercise as I have suggested above, these three countries have become powerful only in the sense in which the US and Europe remained powerful in the post-War era – a decision that Japan had made not on the eve of – nor in the wake of globalization – but with Meiji Restoration that Tagore was vociferously critical of. What he noticed in his Japanyatri as the dominant trend in 1919 led to that great disaster of the Second World War for which Japan – more than any other country of Asia – had to pay an un-affordably high price. It actually took a toll on that tiny island nation. Japan, according to him is the only country that ‘could keep pace with Europe’ by way of rushing towards it on a fast forward track in just 200 or 300 years after it realized that ‘the power that enabled Europe to become all-conquering in the world can be resisted only with that power’. In other words, Japan was the first Asian power to have taken the call to play the same game that ironically the West had introduced to world politics. And then it paid the heavy price with the Second World War. In his essay on ‘Nationalism’ written much later he was inveterately critical of the expansive – if not aggressive - nature of Japanese nationalism that took it towards fascism. The rise of Asia as a power to my mind signifies the decline of Asian notion of power.

This entire line of argument that I trace in Modern Indian Political Thought is certainly not to be called ‘nativist’ - far less ‘romantic’ and ‘revivalist’ of sorts. For, both Vivekananda and Tagore like many of their ilk were also self-critical. While being expansive the West has little to learn from others – more to make others learn from it, the civilizational project of Asia a la these great thinkers was always aware of its own limitations and was always negotiating with itself in its bid to overcome them. Asia was unsure of it and was keen on correcting it – some of them in hard way - and therefore would look upon itself as tentative and inchoate. The necessity of learning from the West is nowhere more aptly underscored than in their writings. But unlike nationalism, pan-Asianism in the post-War era was hardly a derivative discourse. Today’s pan-Asianism is supposed to be a derivative discourse.   

The Price Tag

On the second question of democracy, Mehboobani too shares the anxiety. Does the ‘Rise of Asia’ show signs of any imminent disaster of the magnitude of the Second World War – insofar as the existing dominance of the West comes to be challenged by it? But how can this anxiety be addressed if we were to save the world from another ‘crisis of civilization’ that Tagore had so eloquently written on? I think there are two answers to this question. One, the West may have risen sometime back but its rise as an economic, social and legal-constitutional power was backed by military power – a dimension that Mehboobani has completely forgotten or ignored. The role of military power in helping the West sustain its rise – if not rise itself – is too important to be ignored. The implication is: the rise of Asia will remain unsustainable until it is also able to translate its power into military power. The argument is anarchic: no power is able to make one rise other than the military power. Ultimately, Huntington too sounds realist when he argues that civilizations not only differ softly, but are called upon to ‘clash’ in our era of reckoning – and clash violently with disastrous consequences for the world in order to decide who would rise over whom or perish mutually. Ultimately it is a zero-sum clash that decides the fate of civilizations. For him, the difference has to turn into a ‘clash’. Civilizations are not only to differ, but to clash against each other. I do not know whether the world has any respite from the anarchy problematic. This is not the trajectory that I intend to follow in course of this brief note.

Mahboobani’s argument is different. The international community (particularly the Security Council and International Monetary Fund) must be sufficiently ‘democratized’ so that the rise of Asia can inscribe itself into the domain of diplomacy and international relations. That is how the question of democracy comes into the picture. He calls for three principles of democracy, rule of law and social justice to inform the rise of Asia without bloodshed and war. Anarchy problematic plays out circularly in the heart of this argument: The transition is unlikely to be democratic because the US and Europe have a vested interest in making it undemocratic as long as being undemocratic continues to benefit them. How does one break the circularity in order to inaugurate democratic transition?   

While the moves for making Security Council or IMF more democratic are scuttled as long as the anarchic circularity obtains, one thing is clear - Asian countries seek to rise - without being democratic themselves. Asian countries do not seem to bestow on themselves the onerous burden of being democratic on the ground that democracy is merely a Western obsession. One has only to remember the not-too-old debate on ‘Asian values’. The rise of Asia seems to reread and rewrite Asian values by way of denouncing democracy as Western. Such Asianism turns into an ideology – an ideology that only justifies today’s rise without necessarily justifying democracy as a precondition for its rise. Asianism, as we have indicated above, was never envisaged as such an ideology. In fact it was the contrary – a worldview that is eager to learn from others for it assumes that none of us has the ultimate proprietorship to truth. Thus to cite an instance, India’s rise to power too, as I have argued elsewhere, involves a certain compromise with her democracy at home. I propose to remind myself of the two trends that seem to have connected the forces and processes of globalization that have made possible Asia’s rise with such constant compromise of democracy: One, globalization that is taken as the road towards India’s rise calls for a certain bypassing of the representative institutions considered as central to any functioning democracy. Issues considered so far as the jurisdiction of Parliament are increasingly being pushed out of it and are handed over to the experts and professionals, to the regulatory bodies etc. Two, insofar as critical and life-bearing resources are increasingly privatized and are made available for more rigorous exploitation, people hitherto thriving on them are facing a crisis of survival. They are seen as obstacles to governance and are subjected to intense violence and coercion. Thus it is no surprise that neo-liberal reforms are necessarily accompanied by the rise of the repressive apparatus of the state.

In this world where diplomacy and international relations are yet to be democratized and there has been a certain depletion of democracy across Asia, the West has assigned to itself the task of carrying what Jacques Ranciere calls ‘emblem of democracy’. If democracy is depleted in Asia, the West will have to ‘export’ it. I have argued elsewhere that democracy as envisaged in the West harbours no obligation towards those who do not observe democratic rules and protocols. I have shown how Democratic Theory actually speaks of ‘just war’ – a war that aims at making democracies function safely elsewhere while keeping threats at bay.    

The rise of Asia – like in the West – will take a toll on democracy. The ‘rise’ of Asia holds out that inevitable tragedy. It not only takes a toll on the prospects of democracy in Asia but makes Asia bend on its knees ironically while announcing its rise before the world. Will Asia be prepared to pay the price? The twenty-first century is by all means Western. It is only that Asia has become predominant by paying the heavy price of democracy in a century that continues to be essentially Western.      

[An earlier draft of this paper was presented to the panel on ‘Theorizing Power Shift to Asia’ to the international conference on ‘Power, Alliances and Frameworks in South and Southeast Asia’ organized by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata on 21-23 March, 2012.]