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The Impoverished “Asian Century”

HONG KONG – By 2050, Asia will have more than five billion people, while the European Union’s share of the global population will decline from 9% to 5%. Annual economic growth in Asia over the past 30 years has averaged 5%. Its GDP is projected to increase from $30 trillion to about $230 trillion by 2050. The balance of power in the twenty-first century is shifting – in social, economic, and, arguably, political terms – from west to east.

Western anxieties about a looming “Asian century” stem largely from the precedent of twentieth-century geopolitics, in which the West dominated less-developed nations. But this dynamic is outdated, and Asia would suffer as much as the West from any attempt to emulate the British and American empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As Asian economic growth has increased, consumption in the region has also risen. Multinational companies and Western countries – both of which stand to benefit greatly from Asia’s increasing consumption – have encouraged Asians to aspire to a Western standard of living, with its high energy usage, electronic toys, and meat-heavy diet. Asian governments seem willing partners in this one-dimensional approach to development, and are eager to lead global economic growth. Yet it is neither desirable nor possible for Asians to consume in the way that Westerners do, and Asian governments should face up to this reality.

In previous centuries, Western economic growth was characterized by a comparatively insignificant minority having unfettered access to resources, and was thus built on fueling consumption. This was, after all, the idea behind colonialism, which succeeded economically by underpricing resources or even obtaining them for free.