Just short of five years later, on 28 June 1914, a young Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in the streets of Sarajevo. Within weeks virtually the entire planet was at war.
What happened in Harbin had purely local consequences. What happened in Sarajevo went global. The period from the end of the Napoleonic wars until the end of the Cold War (1815–1991) encompasses the ‘European centuries’ in the sense that the global narrative of that epoch was written in Europe. Although Europe declined after World War II and the United States emerged as the dominant global power, it was what happened in Europe that mattered: in America, perhaps only the 1962 Cuban missile crisis came close to being a globally significant event on the same scale as the World Wars.
The narrative of this century will be written in Asia. It is in that sense that this is the Asian century, not in the sense that Asia has inherited the mantle of global power from the United States. Though the Ukrainian situation appears to resurrect European ghosts, it will not significantly alter the march of history to Asia. The 21st century is the Asian century.
Differences between the two parts of the Eurasian continent are considerable. Europe has fairly precise borders, it is geographically compact, and is the location of one civilisation. Asia, in contrast, is a term coined by the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) to refer to everything lying east of Anatolia. ‘Asia’ was originally a Western concept articulated to differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In reality, Asia is composed of several civilisations, including the Arabic, Persian, Indian and Chinese civilisations.
This is not to say that there have been no exchanges between Europe and Asia. On the contrary, throughout history there has been a great deal of trans-Asian interaction, whether through empires — for example, the expansion eastwards of Arab power, influence and trade from the 7th to the 15th centuries, or the Mongol empire in the 13th and 14th centuries — or through trade along the Silk Road and the Spice Route. Indeed recent research indicates that the Silk Road may have been an even better conduit of ideas than of goods.
The rise of European imperialism in the 19th century which extended, with the single exception of Japan, to the entire continent of Asia, brought these intra-Asian exchanges to an end. Though Siam (renamed Thailand in 1948) escaped actually being colonised, squeezed as it was between British Burma and French Indochina, it had little room for sovereign manoeuvre. Similarly, though China was not colonised, it was subjected to Western (and later Japanese) imperialist indirect rule.
Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, Japan’s imperialism in East Asia did not create any form of pan-Asian space. The expansion of American power in Asia during the latter half of the 20th century retarded the resurgence of intra-Asian exchanges.
In the past two decades that things have changed quite considerably. While Asia at the dawn of the 19th century had a share of over 60 per cent of global GDP, by 1950 this had fallen to less than 20 per cent, with a third accounted for by Japan. But by the late 20th century it was clear that Asia was back. East Asian economies in particular have witnessed the world’s highest and most sustained growth rates. Cross-border intra-Asian trade and investment has soared and constitutes a key driver of the global economy.
While much of Central and Western Asia remains in a state of economic, political, geopolitical, social and ideological turmoil, greater ties are developing with East and South Asia, especially due to the fact that large Asian economies are now major importers of Middle Eastern oil. Whereas the two big Eurasian nations, Turkey and Russia, have throughout the two previous centuries focused their visions primarily on Europe, this is changing as both Moscow and Ankara seek to develop closer ties with Beijing, Delhi and other Asian capitals. The membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, founded in 2001, includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan have observer status, while Belarus, Sri Lanka and Turkey are listed as dialogue partners.
The rise of Asian power can also be seen by the fact that when the G8 (now G7 again) expanded to the G20, the majority of the new members were Asian—China, India, Indonesia, Korea and Saudi Arabia, along with the Eurasian power Turkey, and Australia, which economically is now in the East Asian orbit.
Yet this does not translate into Asian unity. The continent is defined by numerous fault-lines and powder kegs. There are territorial and other disputes of various degrees of seriousness between numerous Asian states, extending from west to east: Pakistan versus India; India and China; Bangladesh and Burma; China and the Philippines and Vietnam; Japan and China and Korea; and, of course, the two Koreas, just to name a few. A number of these are either current or potential future nuclear powers.
Another potential source of conflict is water security. Half of the world’s population depends on water flowing from the Tibetan plateau. Indeed the entire ‘WEEF’ range of issues — water, energy, environment and food — will punctuate the Asian century narrative.
In the face of all these challenges, what is likely to be a critical problem is that Asians do not know each other. Commercial and geopolitical relations may have been revived, but cultural and intellectual ties remain weak. Western soft power still tends to dominate in numerous important respects. For example, while Asian young elites flock in great numbers to American (and Australian, Canadian and European) universities, intra-Asian university exchanges are comparatively few. The same applies to the media. Often Asians depend on Western media for news about other Asian societies, as they have very few correspondents of their own in other Asian countries. Al Jazeera is a rare exception.
The same applies to scholarship. Whereas Asian studies institutes proliferate throughout the West, they are relatively few in most Asian universities (with the notable exception of institutes in Hong Kong and Singapore). Internationally published books and articles on Asian societies will in all probability have been written either by locals (that is to say, Indonesian authors writing on Indonesia) or by Westerners, rarely by other Asians.
The mythological Tower of Babel is believed to have been situated in Asia — according to recent research most likely in North Syria. The two European centuries were extremely brutal and bloody. It remains to be seen what the narrative of the Asian century will be. Its initial stages are, like the Tower of Babel, cacophonous. The world urgently needs a greater Asian cultural and intellectual space in which Asians can create knowledge, confidence and trust by sharing perspectives on the world and each other.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD, Lausanne, founder of The Evian Group@IMD; Visiting Professor at the University of Hong Kong and at NIIT University in India, where he is engaged in The Asian Lenses Forum, an initiative launched in February 2014.