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Published: November 25, 2008

 
 

Best Business Books 2008: Globalization

Asia As It Is

Kishore Mahbubani
The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East
(PublicAffairs, 2008)

Jimmy Hexter and Jonathan Woetzel
Operation China: From Strategy to Execution
(Harvard Business School Press, 2007)

Alexandra Harney
The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage (Penguin Press, 2008)

William J. Bernstein
A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008)


Let’s start with a very brief quiz. For simplicity, we’ll make it multiple choice.

Question 1: The world’s leading exporter in 2007 was: (A) China. (B) India. (C) Japan. (D) The United States.

Question 2: The top U.S. trading partner in 2007 was: (A) China. (B) India. (C) Japan. (D) Mexico.

The answer to both questions is: none of the above. The world’s leading exporter in 2007 was Germany, by quite a large margin. The top U.S. trading partner was Canada, as has been the case for many, many years. China, India, and Japan are not at the top of either list.

These facts are worth noting, because you won’t find them in the current crop of books about globalization. The massive flows of trade, investment, and labor across increasingly porous borders have become a highly sensitive issue in many corners of the world, but the remarkable revival of the German export machine and the startling transformation of the Canadian economy have not attracted literary chroniclers. When people say “globalization,” they typically are thinking of Asia. Asia’s vast populations, the suddenness of its rise, and its countries’ supposed propensity to play by different rules than other countries make the continent’s economic ascent a source of both wonder and worry.

No recent book captures this mix of feelings better than Kishore Mahbubani’s The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, my pick as the standout in this category. This is not the best-written book on globalization, and certainly not the best argued. It is often redundant and frequently tendentious. But The New Asian Hemisphere is an important book for businesspeople to read, because it shines a light on how Asia’s new wealth is translating into new attitudes. The bottom line — West, move over — is one that every corporate executive should contemplate.

Mahbubani’s interest is geopolitics, not business. (See “Ambassador for the Asian Century,” by Sheridan Prasso, s+b, Spring 2008.) After a long career in Singapore’s diplomatic service, he became dean of the school of public policy at the National University of Singapore and a frequent commentator on international affairs. That school is named for Lee Kwan Yew, who became famous for leading Singapore’s transformation from an impoverished appendage of Malaysia to an enormously prosperous city-state, and infamous for promoting the notion that unique “Asian values” — a term widely translated to mean authoritarian government — were essential to Asia’s economic success. Lee is barely mentioned in Mahbubani’s book, but the book is permeated by the idea that rapidly emerging Asia has values different from, and as good as, those of the West.

The New Asian Hemisphere presents the case that globalization involves far more than the export of the fruits of cheap Asian labor. Asian societies, proud of their achievements and empowered by their new wealth, are regaining their historical roles as great civilizations. In the process, they are rejecting much of the influence of the West. Writes Mahbubani: “The West has to understand that this is the major historical trend of our time, that it defines our era…. A steady delegitimization of Western power and influence is under way.”

Western Condescension
Mahbubani reveals a lengthy catalog of grievances against “the West,” grievances that are individually insignificant but collectively telling. These include the of­fenses of a Financial Times journalist who credits China with impressive execution but unoriginal thinking; Westerners who consider China “unfree” without appreciating that its people enjoy much greater freedom than they ever did in the past; Western domination of international organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Bank; and Americans who demand that India negotiate with Pakistan while themselves refusing to resolve differences face-to-face with Iran. These examples, and many others, are offered as evidence of the limitations of Western thought. Asia, with its deeper understanding and greater flexibility than the West, no longer need tolerate such condescension. Westerners “must stop believing they can remake the world in their own image,” Mahbubani tells us. “The world can no longer be Westernized.”

 
 
 
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