The might of the United States in Asia has reached its peak, and China’s soaring wealth, power and productivity is seriously challenging America’s status as the biggest economy in the world. This is an era of transition for Asia, an era that impacts significantly on Australia’s security.
Australia’s security in the Asian Century means living in a region without Western supremacy. This is a scary thought, but it is one we can no longer ignore.
It is scary because it will mean a kind of identity crisis – we are in Asia, and our biggest trading partners are Asian, but we are an incarnation of the West. Our ideal future is one with Chinese money, but with Western, mainly U.S leadership and security blankets to
go along with it at the same time.
What do we mean by the West? This is a very complex, rich concept, but when we talk about it in the realm of security we mean something very specific. The West is the way in which, after the industrial revolution, a relatively small group of countries applied their wealth and power to shape the world. Britain, Northern Europe, North America, and the
European diaspora in settled countries like Australia.
These were the countries that had the wealth and the power. These are the countries that could shape the world, and in particular shape Asia.
It’s a remarkable thing really. Over the last two centuries, for the first time in its history, countries from outside the region have been strong enough to be the primary force in shaping Asia. Even in a place of such huge indigenous, local powers such as India and
That’s been the circumstance which has meant a great deal of stability in Asia (the last 40 years in particular). It’s also the circumstance that allowed Australia to be settled by Europeans. We are on this continent because of the era of Western primacy in Asia.
And that primacy has made us feel secure until now. But the Asian Century is changing that.
So what do we mean by the Asian century? This is another rich and complex phrase, but right at the heart of it is a very simple proposition: that the wealth and power that was acquired by the West thanks to the industrial revolution is no longer a monopoly of the West. The countries of Asia have had industrial revolutions of their own.
In particular, China has had its industrial revolution. And that’s what the rise of China means. A massive increase in per capita productivity in the Chinese workforce.
It is as simple as that – an unimaginable increase in wealth and power. I say that almost literally, we can’t yet imagine what it means for a country of 1.4 billion people to
have an economy that is starting to look like a Western one.
Wealth is power. There are lots of different manifestations of power, but the source of national power is wealth. Never before has there been a rich country that hasn’t been strong, nor a strong country that hasn’t been rich.
Wealth might not be zero sum – wealth can be positive sum, but power is zero sum. It’s not a very sentimental business.
What we mean by the Asian Century by definition is that the West no longer has the power to rule Asia the way it has. This is a very significant change in the way Asia works. Does that mean that Western influence will be etched out of Asia completely? Not necessarily.
I would say that the chances of the West, namely the U.S, playing the same role in Asia as it once has is now fairly low. Simply because it is no longer strong enough relative to China to impose U.S, or Western primacy and leadership on China.
China for a long time accepted American primacy as a foundation of the Asian order because it saw that as the precondition for being able to grow itself.
But now it has grown. And no longer does China accept U.S primacy as the foundation of the Asian order.
Those of us who identify as Western might regret this, but we can hardly be surprised by it. This seems very hard to imagine because the Asia we live in today has been so shaped by American power.
But 70 years ago it seemed almost impossible to imagine Asia without European rule. But that’s exactly what happened, and it was perfectly possible to live in an Asia without European rule.
As for our identity crisis, luckily for us, sport has the answers to all of our problems:
The Australian Soccaroos just represented the Asian Federation in the World Cup. We were representing Asia, along with South Korea, Japan, and Iran, as the four representatives of the Asian region.
Now I think that if that pillar of ethics, values and geopolitics – FIFA, says we’re Asian, and an integral representative of Asia, then perhaps this new identity won’t be so hard to swallow after all.