- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 1999

It was a deliciously symbolic millennial event. At century's end, the last remaining colony in Asia, the tiny Portuguese enclave of Macao, was returned to China on Dec. 20 after 442 years the entire modern era under Western control. Despite the "Asian miracle" hype in recent years, despite the 1997 financial crash, the remarkably swift rise of Asia is for real. Not only that, but it is one of the truly remarkable phenomena of the 20th century and a burgeoning political fact that will reshape the contours of world power in the 21st century.
The telltale signs of Asia rising abound. Only three weeks before the Macao turnover, Beijing had launched its first orbiting space vehicle, prelude to a manned space program. This, at the same moment as 16 Asia-Pacific nations including all key U.S. Asian allies gathered in Manila to conceive the seeds of an Asian economic and financial union no Anglo-Saxons invited.
Greater China (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan) Japan and Korea together hold some $700 billion in foreign reserves, more than half the world's total, and three of the world's 10 largest economies. A recent earthquake in Taiwan threatened the world computer industry with semiconductor shortages, as the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan threatened liquid crystal computer screens. China alone is the world's second-largest consumer of energy and its per capita energy consumption is 10 times less than that of the United States.
In 1998, India (along with Pakistan) demonstrated its membership in the nuclear weapons club. Last year, trans-Pacific air travel surpassed that of the Atlantic. And we won't even go into the global craze of Pokemon.
Asia also poses world class challenges to global security in the new century. A heavily armed Asia features three nuclear weapons states, one virtual nuclear weapons state (Japan), an array of ballistic missile powers, and a region that includes two of the world's six largest defense budgets. More ominously, it is also the locus of the world's most dangerous flashpoints for conflict: the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait and the Indo-Pakistani standoff.
Yet this emergence of the world's first successful non-Western civilizations tends to be either taken for granted or ignored in a United States that even after the Cold War remains remarkably Eurocentric. This despite more than $520 billion in annual two-way trade between the United States and the Asia-Pacific and some $250 billion in foreign direct investment (roughly $125 billion each way). And despite the fact that American have fought three major wars in Asia since 1941. Yet Asia still appears strategically discounted by the United States and Europe.
Maybe it all just happened too fast. After all in 1960, the per capita GDP of South Korea was less than $100, roughly equal to the Congo or Kenya. Before the 1997 financial crisis, Korean per capita GDP exceeded $10,000 and Seoul joined the industrialized naions club, the OECD. The story is similar for the other "Asian Tigers," Singapore, Hong Kong (both with about $25,000 per capita) and Taiwan. Malaysia and Thailand are moving in the same direction. Much of East Asia has accomplished in little more than a generation economic development that took 180 years in the West. Comparable economic success still eludes much of the former communist bloc in Russia and Central Europe.
Whether you call it a miracle or not, much of Asia is following the path of Japan, which in similar breakneck speed, in little more than a generation from the Meiji restoration in the 1870s, became the first successful non-white society in the modern age, shocking the world by defeating the Russian Navy in 1905. Though sobered by the 1997 economic crisis, the elements of Asian success export-led growth, high savings rates, emphasis on education, prudent macroeconomic management have altered notions of economic development. That an Asian middle class has begun to emerge can also be measured in political change. After nearly three decades of dynamic economic growth, suddenly in the late 1980s, emerging middle classes began forcing military-led regime out and democracy in in the Philippines in 1986, South Korea in 1988, Taiwan in 1988, Thailand in 1990, and even Indonesia in 1999.
And then there is China, which has averaged more than 9 percent growth for the past two decades, lifting more than 200 million people out of absolute poverty, but resisting political change. Yet if the ambitious market-oriented economic reforms that Beijing's authoritarian regime is pursuing succeed, China could have a middle class by 2025 as large as the entire U.S. population, one likely to demand more accountable governance. Add India, with its slow but steady growth, and consider a generation hence the implications on the global economy, the environment, and world politics of a 500-million-strong Chinese and Indian middle class. And don't forget some 500 million in Southeast Asia. These burgeoning middle classes have begun to shift regional patterns toward more intra-Asian trade and investment and toward more domestic-led growth.
Asia's emergence has already begun to shift some global patterns, though many in the West seem oblivious to these changes. For example, one of Washington's best-kept secrets is that the United States gets less than 10 percent of its oil from the Middle East. The workings of the global oil market tend to be based largely on transport. Already some two-thirds of Persian Gulf crude is exported to Asia, and an oil-thirsty Asia increasingly depends on Gulf/Middle East crude, already nearly 80 percent of its imports. It was a sign of the times when Chinese President Jiang Zemin made the first-ever trip by a top Chinese leader to Saudi Arabia last November. What the geopolitical implications are of the burgeoning Asia-Middle East energy nexus is one of the great strategic questions of the 21st century.
Asia's strategic weight has yet to be felt in the councils of global governance. Neither the permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council nor the G-7, group of industrialized nations, reflects Asia's military or economic gravitas. Similarly, as underscored by the breakdown of the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle, the future of global trade will be increasingly shaped by the great Asian trading powers. These anomalies may explain why Japan proposes an Asian Monetary Fund, or why an "Asians only" idea for a free trade and currency union surfaces. And the West has yet to contemplate successful Confucian, Buddhist and Hindu societies' impact on world civilization.
As we contemplate how Asia's rise may shape the third millenium, it might be useful to consider how it may be a case of "back to the future." At the turn of the first millenium, to the modern era (when Portuguese explorers landed in Macao), if there was a single superpower, it was China. During Europe's Dark Ages, China during the Sung dynasty (960-1279) and into the Ming dynasty had the world's largest and most technologically advanced economy, the largest urban centers, and the most sophisticated military, with a remarkable standing army of 1.25 million fighting men. Among other innovations, it invented movable type, paper money, gunpowder and rocketry.
In a sense, the rise of China and Asia more broadly, may mark a recapturing a bit of the region's pre-modern realities. To be sure, the United States will remain the pre-eminent power over the next few decades. But ponder the world of 2050: an Asia with more than half the world population; perhaps 40 percent of the global economy; more than half the world's Information technology industry; and world-class high-tech military capabilities. Don't be surprised if there is a "back to the future" reality ahead, with the world in the third millennium bearing more resemblance to the world at the beginning of the last millennium. Clearly, we ignore Asia only at our peril.

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