Prospects of the Asian Century – Opportunities and Challenges in the Context of Sino-US Competition

Before Trump took office in 2017, many believed that the 21st century would be the Asian Century, as the world’s economic and political centre gradually shifts to the Asia-Pacific, especially with the rise of China. However, starting from Trump’s initiation of a trade war against China, to the Biden administration’s formal identification of China as the number one strategic competitor, Sino-US competition has become an important variable affecting the global landscape. The unexpected COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have further complicated the already turbulent global situation. These three forces acting together have brought great instability and uncertainty to global security and have caused many to question if the Asian Century will indeed come into fruition. The author is convinced that despite these unprecedented challenges, the general trend portends great opportunities that will work favourably for the arrival of the Asian Century.

The primary reason why the Asian Century would continue in its making is that China’s anchoring role has remained unchanged. In the process of building the post-World War II international order, Asia first attracted global attention with Japan’s economic recovery and development; then, the rise of South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore as the “four Asian Tigers”, again attracted global attention. The economic “miracle” represented by Japan and the “four Asian Tigers” has created two waves of the “Asian Phenomenon”. But what truly sparked the global debate on the “Asian Century” has to be the rise of China. China has since its “reform and opening up” become one of the major global economic growth engines and the second largest economy in the world; and this has prompted the elevation of the global discussion on the “Asian Phenomenon” to the level of the “Asian Century”.

According to the just concluded 20th Communist Party of China Party Congress in October 2022, China will continue to maintain its economic development policy with emphasis on continuity and stability. Propelled by the Chinese-styled modernisation, China will promote high-quality development with scientific and technological innovations. China will also continue to keep its economic system open, and allow countries around the world to benefit from China’s growth. China also strives to be a sustainable growth engine to global economic recovery. China’s commitment to contribute to global economic development is the ballast for the development momentum of the Asian Century.

Another important reason why the prospect of Asian Century remains positive is that China is not the single pole of economic growth and dynamism in Asia. Japan and the “four Asian Tigers” formed the first and second waves of Asian economic development. India as an important emerging economy of the BRICS (leading emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), together with Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand as well as the rest of ASEAN countries, form the follow-up waves. The complementary strengths of these countries taken together constitute a magnificent landscape of continuous economic growth in Asia.

The shared Asian values of mutual respects and inclusivity have benefited the development of the various Asian economies. It is a fact that Asian countries are in different stages of economic and social development, and are diverse in terms of religious and cultural make-up. However, regardless of these differences, Asian people are hardworking, kind and wise; and Asian countries pursue peaceful development and cooperation on the whole. Their colonial history and experiences give them a shared will to pursue independence, equality and inclusivity. These shared values have provided Asian countries the non-material impetus to economic development, and have enabled them to stand out amidst the global economic downturn.

In spite of the current trend of economic de-globalisation and weak global economic recovery, there are favourable factors that augur well for the realisation of the Asian Century.

First, opportunities for peaceful development. The vast majority of Asian countries are peace-loving countries which have made development to improve people’s livelihood their top priority. The 20th Communist Party of China Party Congress has once again emphasised the importance of people-centric development and reiterated that development is the primary task of the Party, in its exercising of state power and rejuvenation of the country. The Party Congress has also promised to accelerate the establishment of a new development model and to vigorously promote high-quality development. It is true that the current level of development is uneven across Asian countries, but to some extent this also means that there is much growth potential for Asian countries to tap.

Second, opening up at the institutional level. Multilateral regional trade agreements, such as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA), provide important institutional platforms for trade and investment liberalisation. These multilateral regional economic cooperation agreements also facilitate cooperation between Asian countries and the world, promotion of international macroeconomic policy coordination and exploration of new global development dynamics. In addition, Belt and Road Initiative, Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, are public goods that serve to integrate development and security at multilateral institutional level.

Third, demographic bonus. Although Japan, China and some Asian countries are facing issues of aging populations, there are still many other Asian countries that have relatively young populations. For example, the population structures of India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh ensure that Asia as a whole will continue to enjoy the demographic bonus that will benefit economic growth for quite some time to come. The demographic bonus not only attracts foreign investment, but also drives up consumption and domestic demand; it will facilitate economic growth and provide important human resource support for the Asian Century.

Fourth, land-sea nexus. Since Alfred Thayer Mahan, who propounded the “sea power theory”, maritime resources exploration and exploitation have become the mainstream thinking of maritime countries. However, with the rise of land power elements, such as mineral resources, oil pipelines and high-speed rails, the status of land power elements as enabler of national development has become increasingly prominent. The geographic diversity and richness of Asian countries provide opportunities for collaboration to optimise the use of land and maritime resources in Asia. The desire to integrate land-sea connectivity for supply chains will incentivise regional cooperation on infrastructure development. In this regard, China has accumulated many useful practices in supporting economic development with infrastructure construction. In terms of commitment to enhancing the connectivity between the Asian, European and African continents and the nearby oceans, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a modernised version of borrowing historical symbols to promote land-sea connectivity, without any intention of using them for geopolitical influence.

Against the background of rising trade protectionism and ultra-nationalism, competition between China and the US adds uncertainties to the realisation of the Asian Century; and the biggest challenge lies in the pan-security trap set by the US’ forcing China into strategic competition. Only by maintaining the path of peaceful development, by recognising that peace and development are the core interests and the greatest common denominator of all Asian countries, and by upholding ASEAN’s centricity through unity and cooperation, we can then achieve prosperity and stability for all Asian countries and to bring the Asian Century into fruition.

Tian Shichen
Founder and CEO, Global Governance Institute, Beijing

December 2022