In recent months, as Asia has weathered the financial crisis better than the West, and the Obama administration has taken a deferential approach toward China, numerous new books have declared that, finally, this will be Asia’s era. From Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the end of the Western World to Kishore Mahbubani’s slightly older The New Asian Hemisphere to the recent cover story in the Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows, which compared China’s gleaming infrastructure to America’s potholed roads and horrendous cell phone coverage, the Asia cheerleaders are out in force.
Part of the new hyperbole of Asia’s rise rests, of course, on the staggering growth rates delivered by India and China. (This growth, of course, faces pitfalls — environmental, demographic, and otherwise — but this isn’t my area, so I’ll leave it to the experts.) Part of the hyperbole rests upon the United States’ obviously poor management of its financial and diplomatic capital. But part rests on the notion, expressed in Mahbubani’s paean to Asian integration that, although things are moving slowly, the region eventually will develop the informal ties and formal institutions to match the West.
But as I write in a new Current History article, “The New Schizophrenia,” Asia is still caught between integration and isolation, and until the region resolves this tension, it will never prove a true challenge to the West. Right now, nationalism in Asia is used simultaneously for positive and pernicious ends — to draw the region together and, at times, to rally populations against external enemies. The more destructive use of nationalism goes beyond the well-known tensions between China and Japan, or China and India — Thailand and Cambodia have nearly come to blows several times in recent years, over issues as seemingly remote from modern-day Bangkok as a border temple claimed by both nations.
– Joshua Kurlantzick