Mahbubani is quick to point out that this will merely represent a reemergence. China and India had economies larger than any in Europe for many hundreds of years, until 1820, when the Industrial Revolution took hold in England. “Why did the resurgence not happen 100 years ago, why not 200 years ago, why now?” he asked in May 2007 in his keynote speech at the CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets conference in Singapore. The answer is that Asian societies have only recently begun to adopt what Mahbubani calls the “seven pillars of Western wisdom”: free-market economics, the spread of science and technology, meritocracy, the culture of peace, the rule of law, the spread of education, and pragmatism. “The day Deng Xiaoping dropped central planning and introduced free-market economics, China became the fastest-growing economy in the world,” he said. “If you look at the Chinese Communist Party, for example, it is as meritocratic as Harvard University.” More than 80 percent of the people alive today who hold a science or technology Ph.D. are in Asia, he noted, and we can expect to see increasing levels of innovation from the region. “And yet, the most important thing for Western audiences to absorb with the rise of Asia is that Asians are not going out to dominate the West. They want to replicate the West and indeed bring many of its best practices to Asia.”
Unlike Western nations, where the rise of Germany in the last century provoked two world wars, Asia’s nations are developing new patterns of cooperation — all due to the insight of Beijing, he said. China saw in the September 11, 2001, attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq an opportunity to exert its influence in the rest of the world. “The fact that China bent over backward to be useful to America after the Iraq war…was a sign of [its] political acumen,” he said. In the 1960s and ’70s, China had a troubled relationship with Southeast Asia, mainly because it was supporting Communist insurgencies in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. “It seemed China and Southeast Asia would always have difficult relations,” Mahbubani continued. But even though the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has had a much longer relationship with the U.S. and Japan, the first country to sign a free trade agreement with ASEAN was China. Beijing’s self-interested calculation was to foster its neighbors’ prosperity so that they’d be less susceptible to any sort of containment strategy on the part of Japan or Western powers.
This may be news to many of the businesspeople in the audience, his speech continued, because the Western-dominated media hasn’t been reporting Beijing’s success stories. “They are too busy trying to understand the rise of Asia using the mental maps derived from the last century’s shifting of powers in Europe,” he said. The Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Economist, he noted, continually report on China’s monumental environmental problems, its social instability, its lack of progress toward democracy, and its human rights abuses. “These are the articles written by minds programmed to expect the Western world is competent and the rest of the world is incompetent,” according to Mahbubani. “That’s not what’s happening.”
In the West, he continued, you will read that China’s drives into Africa and Latin America are largely a quest for natural resources, minerals, and energy. But China has understood that “in the new global order shaping up in the world, they have to seek out new active partners.” Take, for example, China’s ability to get most of the leaders of Africa to gather in Beijing for a summit in November 2006, which Mahbubani sees as a clear sign of long-term strategic thinking by China’s leadership. And in 2006, where did all 10 ASEAN leaders meet outside Southeast Asia for the first time? In Nanning, in southern China. “China is the most competent geopolitical actor in the world,” he said. “It’s remarkable that the newest power on the scene is emerging with unusual deftness and a good feel for what we need to do. It’s the established powers making all the mistakes.”