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From the ruins of empire

US President Obama's visit to Asia raises questions within this region on where we are going and how Asia should engage and embrace the West.

No understanding of globalisation and its impact on Asia can be complete without tracing it to the remarkable period in the 19th century when the West used the power of the Industrial Revolution and science and technology to carve up the rest of the world into colonies.

In a remarkable book by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the tale of Asia's integration into global markets is told from the perspectives of several key Asian intellectuals, notably a Persian Muslim, Jamal a-Din al-Afghani (1938-1897) and a Chinese revolutionary, Liang Qichao (1873-1929). "From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia" tells of how the former struggled with the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire and the revival of Islam in the 19th century, while the other had to abandon the beliefs of his teacher, the famous Confucian scholar Kang Youwei (1858-1927), who failed to revive the Qing Dynasty.

These intellectuals witnessed the collapse of their civilisations in the face of superior science, technology, governance and guns. They sought the strategic answers and appropriate responses to both physical and mental colonisation. Their students and successors are still trying to find the right answers.

There were essentially four paths open to countries and cultures that confronted Western colonisation in the 150 years to the end of the second world war.

The first was to accept colonisation and attempt to educate the next generation in the ways of science, technology, culture and modern governance - the Indian path. The second, followed by Japan and Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, was to become Western and try to beat them at their own game. The Japanese succeeded with the naval defeat of the Russians at the famous battle of Tsushima in 1905. The third was to synthesise the best of the West with indigenous culture and attempt to create one's own path of development - essentially the Chinese journey that remains unfinished. Another path is to totally reject the West and to fight it through terrorism and other means, one that Osama bin Laden took.

None of these paths were painless. Jamal al-Din was an itinerant thinker, moving from Persia to India, Afghanistan, Turkey and the West. Because he travelled widely, he understood the power of science and knowledge, and he placed faith in the power of Islam and nationalism, but in the end he opted for pan-Islamism.

Liang Qichao, on the other hand, also struggled with preserving the old and dealing realistically with modernisation and economic growth driven by Western capitalism. An education in Japan and travels in the US opened his eyes to both the positive and negative side of modernisation. The dark side of capitalism drove him back to a traditionalist moral order. To him, modernisation need not be equated with Westernisation.

Pankaj Mishra rightly argues that "the West has seen Asia through the narrow perspective of its own strategic and economic interests, leaving unexamined - and unimagined - the collective experiences and subjectivities of Asian peoples".

There is of course no single Asian view or even set of values, but rather myriad worldviews that can be contradictory and even confused. It is too easy to be chauvinistic and parochial, insisting that traditional values can be adequate bulwarks against the invasion of Hollywood and social media. Those who argue about the inevitable rise of the East forget that history does not necessarily move in straight lines. Similarly, those who criticise the West must offer realistic alternatives, not just for national paths to development, but solutions for the new global order, or non-order.

True, the Great Recession of 2007-2009 shook the West to the core, signalling a shift in the balance of power from a unipolar world to a multipolar nexus. The events of Crimea this year rudely reminded us that the Cold War, or the struggle between world powers, has not ended. But the recovery of the West and withdrawal of quantitative easing has also revealed many emerging markets to be swimmers with very few clothes on as the tide goes out.

The problem with the current unstable situation is not that there is a fight over who should be number one, but that everyone is insecure, including the current number one. The reality is that the old compasses offer us no guidance in this period of rapid change - in demographics, technology, climate change, social mobility, inequality and global competition.

At a time when there should be more global public goods, the US Congress's refusal to increase the capital of the IMF in December last year, as had been agreed by G20, told everyone that in the new global monetary order, you are on your own.

The dilemma of being on one's own requires, as Pankaj Mishra correctly argues, an answer to the question of how to define one's own place in a world where gold and power still rules.

But those who have the power may not necessarily have the gold, and those who have the gold (or oil) may not necessarily rule.

Many emerging-market intellectuals have realised that they cannot rely on multilateral bodies to propel growth and development. They must find their own way of development, based on their own comparative advantages, cultures and strengths.

The unipolar model of one-size-fits-all development is dead.

But globalisation and technology have together created a huge melting pot of cultures in which there will be a new synthesis of ideas, East and West, North and South. The new synthesis is being driven not by one ideology or one hegemon, but by the common threat facing all mankind, the Age of the Anthropocene - human-directed geological change in which we are all destroying the natural environment around us.

Thus, the real threat is not just nation versus nation, but a mutual destruction of us and our whole biodiversity through an unsustainable consumption model.

The old empires were built through unfettered capitalism, but the worst empires are those of the mind. We must learn to conquer our self, before we can even begin to deal with everyone else around us.

Andrew Sheng is Distinguished Fellow of the Fung Global Institute.


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