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The Making of Modern Asia
From the end of empire to the rebirth of China, from the streets of Tokyo to the beaches of Thailand, a journey through Asia's history stops at specific times and places. Reflections on those moments combine to form the theme of this year's summer double issue, which is introduced here by KISHORE MAHBUBANI, one of Asia's leading thinkers on its past—and future
The 21st century has opened and will close with two puzzles about the rise of Asia. Today, the puzzle is why Asian societies, long in the doldrums, are now successful. At the century's close, by contrast, historians will want to know why Asian societies succeeded so late, taking centuries to catch up with a Europe that they had outperformed for millenniums. Neither puzzle is—or will be—easy to solve.
As a child of a poor Indian immigrant family growing up in the 1950s in the British colony of Singapore, neither I nor my classmates could have even conceived the notion that an Asian century would begin in our lifetimes. We believed that London was the center of the universe; one friend used to tell me that the streets there were paved with gold. Both India and China seemed doomed to eternal poverty. Today, it is clear that the Asian century has begun. What remains unclear, however, are the factors that caused this enormous change. There was, for example, the exhaustion of the European colonial powers after two destructive World Wars, and the consolidation of nationalist sentiments, forged in the anticolonial struggles. There was the rise of the U.S. as the most benign power in human history, creating a new world order that allowed potential rivals to emerge. There were the pressures of cold war competition, which forced the U.S. to encourage the economic success of its allies, especially Japan and the four Asian tigers. Then there were accidents with profound, if unanticipated, consequences, like the Sino-Soviet split, which drove China into the U.S. camp and facilitated Deng Xiaoping's fateful decision to explain why China needed the "Four Modernizations," and financial accidents, like the Plaza Accord of 1985, which caused a rush of Japanese investments into East Asia. There was the cultural attraction of the U.S., which lured hundreds of thousands of young Asians to study there—when they returned home, these Asians provided the yeast for a new cultural confidence in their own societies. Finally, there was globalization, which provided a tremendous boost to Asian economies, especially to China's and India's.
All of these forces for change can be thought of as benign. Yet in paradoxical ways, tragedies, too, contributed to Asia's rise. The Korean War was painful and destructive. But it led to a strategic American decision to encourage the rebuilding of Japan's economy and society—although this sadly swept under the carpet the dreadful record of Japan's actions in World War II. Japan's economic success in turn inspired the four tigers. The Vietnam War was equally painful. But the U.S. decision to hold the line in Indochina allowed Southeast Asian countries to become dynamos, rather than dominoes. The historical verdict on U.S. involvement in Vietnam is unfair: despite the ignominious retreat by the U.S. from Saigon, Vietnam ultimately applied to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The Vietnamese decision to invade Cambodia in December 1978 also triggered some happy, if unintended, consequences. Apart from ending the genocide of Pol Pot, it solidified the Sino-American relationship and gave ASEAN new political resolve. One of the least appreciated contributions to the rise of Asia has been the magic provided by ASEAN in delivering political stability and harmony to Southeast Asia. Despite having greater ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity than Southeast Europe, the region remained an oasis of peace in the 1990s while the Balkans erupted into a frenzy of ethnic and religious killings. ASEAN saved Southeast Asia, especially during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which could have led to political havoc in the region. And it is at the heart of the alphabet soup of regional processes that have provided the foundations for even wider regional cooperation. The first-ever Asia-wide summit will be held in Kuala Lumpur in December this year, bringing together the 10 ASEAN leaders with those of China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. It will be a truly historic meeting. ASEAN made it possible.
Of course, other regions in the world benefited from propitious external developments. The U.S. supported allies in other areas of the developing world—for example, Egypt received as much aid as South Korea. But nowhere else has seen the scale of success in Asia. Why is that? Here, the missing piece of the puzzle has to be the cultural fabric of Asian societies.
Cultural confidence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for development. Centuries of European colonial rule had progressively reduced Asian self-confidence. Future generations of Indian citizens will be wondering how 300 million Indians—including my own ancestors—allowed themselves to be passively ruled by fewer than 100,000 Britons. Those as yet unborn will not understand how deeply the myth of European cultural superiority had been embedded into the Indian psyche. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister, once said the defeat of Russia in 1905 by Japan first triggered the idea of independence for India in his mind. That was a remarkable admission; it implied that intelligent Indians could not conceive of governing themselves before Japan, an Asian power, defeated a European one.