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Asia's rise and the steady decline of the West

The region's greatest challenge will be how to manage China

| China
Soldiers stand before a giant screen as Xi Jinping speaks at the military parade in October 2019: the prospect of a world dominated by the Chinese Communist Party looms large.   © Reuters

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

When the history of the 2020s is written, this past year may be regarded as marking the end of what has been loosely called the post-colonial era in Asia. The defining measures of this transition are the definitive shift in economic power from the former colonial powers in the West, toward the former colonies of the East, and an accompanying erosion of western geopolitical and moral influence.

Not only have the United States and Europe lost economic ground to Asia, in terms of volumes of trade, investment and growth, but the capacity to guide and influence political developments, serve as a moral yardstick and ultimately use military power to influence events has been severely eroded.

In 2019 China exported more than $2.6 trillion in goods and services, slightly ahead of the U.S. figure of $ 2.5 trillion. The U.S. may still have an edge on China in terms of military spending and capability, but experts warn that China is catching up fast and that a conflict in the Asian region is not a sure win for the U.S.

In 2020, these trends were accelerated by a pair of huge black swans: the COVID-19 pandemic and the political meltdown in the U.S.

Asia's response to the pandemic was palpably more effective. Economically weak and -- for the first time since the end of World War II -- unsure of the integrity of a common democratic political culture because of the loss of American leadership, the western powers that have set the parameters of global governance and trade since 1945, have simply lost their legitimacy as guardians of the way the world should work.

Incoming U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed hosting a summit of democracies, prompting some to argue that the U.S. needs to fix its own democracy first.

The essence of this new reality is captured by the unstoppable rise of China, which has defied all efforts to contain its growing technological edge, limit the expansion of its military reach and suffer the consequences of curbing the freedoms of its citizens. Not only, has China broken free of the normative and strategic restraints of the old post-colonial order, but it has forced the former colonial powers for the first time to shape policies and trade deals that serve China-dominated Asian ends, rather than the other way around.

The question is: how will Asia fill the vacuum in terms of thinking about how to harness its economic power to the greater human good, and frame normative values to accompany and reinforce the region's growing influence. To listen to the panicked foreign policy establishment in the U.S. and some European countries, the prospect of a world dominated by the Chinese Communist Party looms large.

But all the fear-mongering about China loses sight of the fact that the next two largest economies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, are democracies. So are the two largest countries after China, India and Indonesia. Hong Kong may have lost its freedoms, but Taiwan thrives and Singapore is slowly shedding the heavy-handed engineering of social and economic life to become a viable platform for entrepreneurial energy in the wider Sino-sphere.

The region's political landscape has changed significantly since the mid-1990s when all the hubris of rapid economic growth and development saw some countries promote the idea of so-called Asian values to justify paternalistic authoritarian government.

The democratic transitions of the last two decades of the 20th century have matured and stood the test of time, even if there have been setbacks. There is a vibrant and more active civil society, a more alert and aspirational younger generation connected by means of social media. Technological and entrepreneurial innovation grows apace. Assuming the continued regression of western power and influence, what would mid-21st century Asian-led norms focus on and highlight?

Environmental concerns come close to the top of the list. The impact of climate change is much more keenly felt across Asia: a proximately dangerous mix of rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and rising temperatures. At the same time, there is less of the institutionalized and corporate resistance to embracing the need to address the problem, especially compared to the U.S.

Transparent governance and an urgent need to address inequality comes next. Much of Asia's growth and development has benefited elites and severe inequality needs to be addressed. The legacy of the pandemic in the region will be that governments must spend more on safeguarding public health and providing social welfare. Unlike the U.S. and Europe, Asia's larger states have less overstretched budgets and deeper reserves, as well as the collective social impulses to become models of effective public spending.

People sit in front of makeshift living quarters in Jakarta: severe inequality needs to be addressed.   © Reuters

Constructive nonalignment will be an important bedrock of regional security for the foreseeable future. The post-colonial order was built on alignment and alliance. The U.S. and Europe thrived on alliances forged in the embers of World War II and the subsequent Cold War. Much of Asia suffered from the extension of this ideological divide to the region.

Consequently, there is a natural allergy to great power alignment and this will help foster peace and cooperative development, even as the waning western powers try to divide and polarize the regions in an effort to counter China's rise.

None of this will be easy to achieve. To reach these goals and contribute to the greater global good, Asia needs to invest in bold, creative diplomacy and adjust a collective mindset about their place in the world that has long looked to the West for leadership. India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea all have tremendous convening potential, but they must shed their inward-looking preoccupation with narrowly defined interests focused on trade protection and sovereignty.

The greatest challenge of all, however, will be how to manage China in this new power equation. Much of China's truculence and aggressive intransigence feeds off the historical memory of colonial predation and indignity. Leaving the post-colonial era behind will help attenuate this neuralgia.

With the former colonial powers in the back seat, it might be easier for Asia's mid-sized powers to collectively persuade China to support a more open and constructive set of norms that adheres to the rule of law.

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