What Asian Century?

PARIS – It is almost taken for granted nowadays that this is to be the “Asian Century,” marking an irreversible political/economic shift in global power from West to East. China has replaced Germany as the world’s leading exporter, while South Korea’s Korean Electric recently outbid Electricité de France to build three nuclear reactors in Abu Dhabi.

To be sure, Chinese trade statistics do not reflect the imports needed to assemble its exports, and the South Koreans’ reactor will use Westinghouse technology. But Asia’s success should not be undersold, especially when one considers that Asia’s governments have used the recent financial crisis wisely, as an opportunity to reinforce the free market mechanism. (South Korea, for example, simultaneously helped its poor and deregulated its labor market.) The United States and Europe have not.

Yet it is premature to proclaim an Asian Century. Perhaps the coastal areas of South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and China’s eastern seaboard share some common cultural characteristics and a similar economic strategy. But much of central and western China is mired in poverty; Indonesia belongs to a different world culturally and economically; and India is a very different Asia as well. Nor does Asia cohere politically; parts of it are democratic, other parts are ruled by despots.

Moreover, there is no “Asian” economic system: China’s state capitalism does not belong to the same category as the private capitalism practiced in Japan and Korea. India remains largely an agricultural economy, dotted with small business and service-sector dynamism.