In a media environment saturated with dissection of inconsequential minutiae, it is sometimes a struggle to keep one’s eyes on the ‘substantive images’: the developments of serious import that will concretely define the direction of the world. It was therefore with some relief that we at Mediolana became aware of Parag Khanna’s mildly provocative The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict and Culture in the 21st Century, a book that seeks to direct its audience’s attention to the inexorable rise of the planet’s most populous continent.
Khanna’s thesis correctly underscores the undeniable significance of Asia – an act which is not hard to accomplish, but which few have attempted with anything like his stridence and lucidity. Asia possesses a number of the world’s largest economies and most of the world’s foreign exchange reserves; its military potency is exceptional, particular in terms of manpower; and several of its more ambitious countries are taking giant strides on political stages both domestic and international.
Much of this material is borderline unarguable. However, Khanna’s work possibly falls short on its prescriptions for greater Asian integration, which he views as ‘natural’ for what he perceives as a ‘continental system’ similar to that of the European Union.
In fact, Asia is much more diverse – geographically, linguistically, religiously, culturally – than Europe. Democracies border onto dictatorships, while communist nations sustain curious alliances with putative theocracies. A huge amount remains to be accomplished when it comes to fashioning a coherent power bloc out of 49 states which have widely divergent political economies; after some contemplation, what follows are five steps towards a greater Asia:
- Asiavision. Pan-Asian soft power events – such as a continent-wide song contest à la Eurovision – can go a long way towards creating a genuinely continental cultural space.
- Abolishing absolute poverty. Speaking of soft power, Asia will never fulfil its potential while such large numbers of its citizens – particularly in regions such as South Asia – are needlessly languishing in morally indefensible penury.
- Urban infrastructure. China’s Belt and Road initiative – while mammoth in scale – still does not address the need for dramatic investments in public transportation across much of the continent, including the cross-border high-speed rail projects which can connect up regions.
- Legislation. Asia presently lacks a continent-wide equivalent of the European Commission, or indeed the African Commission. It should fill this gap with a directly-elected institution which has the technocratic expertise to harmonise and elevate the standing of environmental and industrial laws.
- Human rights. Far too many Asian nations (China, Saudi Arabia et al) have little to contribute in the field of basic human rights promotion; at the other end of the democratic spectrum, Asian states still reflexively take their cue from the West rather than evaluating trends more critically. An independent human rights court could go a long way towards remedying this.