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The Short Asian Century?

TOKYO – The British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm once called the epoch stretching from the French Revolution of 1789 to World War I’s outbreak in 1914 as the “long nineteenth century.” A little over a decade ago, people began to speculate about an emerging “Asian century,” driven by an unstoppable China and enabled by America’s supposed inevitable decline. But with China’s economy in turmoil, key East Asian “tiger” economies like Malaysia and Thailand floundering, and even Singapore facing questions about the vitality of its economic model, is this “Asian century” coming to a premature end?

Political and economic troubles plague the region from east to west. In India and Indonesia, hopes that the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joko Widodo, respectively, would spark a new wave of economic reform now seem to be running into the sand. Similarly, in South Korea, two successive presidents have failed to follow through on their bold promises to rein in the chaebol, the country’s massive family-owned conglomerates, in order to unleash the animal spirits of entrepreneurship. And in Japan, although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has implemented far-reaching reforms, they have yet to reignite economic dynamism, and efforts to address the demographic threat posed by a rapidly aging population have not even begun.

Then there are Asia’s serious political and security challenges, including the growing strategic rivalry between the United States and China, signs of resurgent nationalism across the region, and the fracturing of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” mode of government. More destabilizing, China is making vast territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, as well as to the Indian province of Arunchal Pradesh. And, perhaps most dangerous, the isolated and unpredictable North Korean regime is becoming more unstable than ever under the callow and violent leadership of Kim Jong-un.

In the absence of coherent regional frameworks, it is no surprise that rival structures are being built, with the US championing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which will link 12 Pacific Rim countries into a vast free-trade area, governed by an advanced set of agreed rules. For its part, China is working to establish, through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its “Silk Road” initiative, a Sino-centric trade area that perpetuates not only its regional hegemony, but also its state-capitalist model.