Is the 21st Century Asia’s Century?

Has Asia been doing enough in leading the world? Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been much debate about the importance of Asia’s economic growth to the world. There has been relatively little attention paid to Asia’s contribution to global governance, however, especially in relation to climate change, economic inequality and social justice.

In his recent noteworthy book, The Asian 21st Century, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, a prominent diplomat and a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapores Asia Research Institute, shares his thoughts on the challenges and dilemmas faced by both Asia and the West.

One of the most inspiring chapters is titled “Why American Presidents Matter”. It is true that the election of an American president has huge consequences for the world. According to Professor Mahbubani, Joe Biden cannot reverse the US-China geopolitical contest, but Biden can press the pause button. Calm US-China relations would lead to a more stable global environment. For in the 21st century’s trade liberalization and economic integration, most nation states have become like small cabins on a larger global boat. We need to understand that even the most luxurious cabins mean nothing if the global boat sinks.

Professor Mahbubani further elaborates on the way the twenty-first century is progressing steadily toward a multicivilizational world. Most importantly, he underscores how the rise of China and the return of Asia to center stage will change or influence the era of Western domination of our modern human history. The Asian story is not just about China. It is also about other parts of Asia, including India and Southeast Asia. Economically, World Bank statistics reveal that Asia contributed 42 percent of the world’s GDP (at purchasing power parity) in 2021, which was more than any other region. Apart from China’s notable economic capacity, other fast-growing Asian economies, such as India and Vietnam, have become major trade partners to the world. For example, Asia and India are trading increasingly with the United States, particularly in electronics and textiles.

But Asia also features a wider range of cultural and linguistic diversity than Europe or the West. There are around 2,300 languages in Asia against Europe’s 300. Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism and other religious traditions also co-exist in the region. Fundamentally, there is a complex and philosophical question concerning whether Asian people think differently on many current global issues. Professor Mahbubani provides some personal observations and thought-provoking analysis in his book.

We live in a century of uncertainty with many common challenges, such as global warming, economic recession and on-going wars. There is an urgent need to strengthen global multilateral institutions to ensure that we have a peaceful and prosperous 21st century. For example, the WTO’s appellate body needs to be reformed to ensure that trade disputes can be discussed and solved in a peaceful and appropriate manner. The WTOs dispute settlement system was in fact on the agenda at the recent 13th WTO ministerial conference in Abu Dhabi. Second, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could be strengthened to increase the volume of trade conducted among members. The COVID-19 pandemic precipitated a devastatingly sharp contraction of economic activity and the world economy has not yet recovered fully from this. We need to think about more ways to improve the current situation.

Perhaps the question is not whether the fate of the 21st century will depend on Asian or Western leadership in global governance, but instead whether we will have pragmatic, realistic, and charismatic leaders to give us clear direction towards a better, greener and safer world.


Dr. Wing Lok Hung