Travis Kupp, a member of our Emerging Fellows program initiates publishing a series of blog posts to inspect the widespread assumption that Asia is the rising star of this century. This is his first post in our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Many eyes lately seem to be on Asia, and with good reason. Over the last 30 years, few regions of the world have transformed as dramatically as the Asian continent. Its rise in global economic, political, and cultural influence a difficult reality to ignore. However, Asia is anything but a monolith and there is no guarantee that the next 30 years will unfold as a continuation of recent tendencies. The future of the continent will depend on how its constituent powers navigate their differences in light of forces largely beyond their individual control.
Where Asia was once, in eyes of the West, nothing more than the Eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, Europe and the world have come to better understand the significance of this third of the planet's total land area. The first millennium and a half of the common era saw Asian civilizations push the geographical limits of their ambition and develop the most important trade routes of Afro-Eurasia. Then came the centuries of Western colonialism and exploitation. Not until the tumultuous wars of the 20th century did much of the continent gradually emancipate from foreign hegemony and regain control of its destiny, though in a vastly different international playing field. The legacy of unbridled resource extraction, imposed ideologies, and poorly drawn borderlines left by alien governments challenges Asia to the present day.
From this starting position, the nations of Asia have stepped into the 21st century on different paths. Today, East Asia continues to emerge with China as an overwhelming center of gravity and North Korea as a potential radical force. The Southeast is taking the spotlight for low-end manufacturing and export growth. India still struggles with its neighbor Pakistan, the key to future of the South. West Asia, which makes up a large part of the Middle East, is redefining its identity for a post-oil future. Central Asia, meanwhile, sits at the literal crossroads of Russia and China with the potential to benefit tremendously from the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative. The majority of the Asian population resides in nations that have managed to integrate into the functioning core of the globalized world, namely in India, China, and few of their neighbors. Whether Southeast, West, and Central Asia follow suit, however, remains to be seen and is far from guaranteed.
Headlines of a flourishing Asia, on some metrics, mask the fact that this development has not been geographically homogenous nor is it entirely stable. Already the sustainability of broad economic growth is under question, especially considering the global environmental dynamics at play. China’s long reach West across land and South across sea has raised alarms locally and internationally, triggering realignment in trade and security relationships. The future holds additional challenges for the continent in the form of demographic changes driven by aging populations, and migration and more border disputes as resources become scarce and the effects of climate change intensify. All this in a part of the world where regionalism has historically had a distinctly different flavor from a European or an African Union, which begs the question of whether thinking of Asia as a unit is even a fruitful exercise.
The urgent global attention given to Asia is warranted. Each part of the continent has transformed uniquely in recent decades with ambitions of economic growth, political control, or technological superiority. Whether any given ethnic or ideological group in the region is able to manifest these dreams or not, the interaction of those pursuits with the environment and the world order—even if less connected or cooperative in some scenarios—will be a significant determining factor in the futures of all other nation-states. Though its future is uncertain, what plays out in Asia over the coming three decades will have decisive and lasting impact on planetary systems and the fate of humanity.