Asia represents not a cultural construct but a continental body. With disparate spheres that straddle Israel, Afghanistan, India, and Japan, its demarcation answers to geographic happenstance alone. Jawaharlal Nehru encountered nothing less when his fraternal formulations of “Asianness” shattered upon the indifference of Mao Zedong’s southbound tanks in 1962.
Yet this terrestrial supercluster of civilizations needs no transcontinental identity to justify its importance. A repository for three-fifths of the world’s population, two-fifths of its output, and one-third of its military expenditure, by midcentury Asia will contain the majority of the world’s trade and armaments; its politics will determine the maintenance of war or peace on Earth. If the destiny of this century is to be decided there, then the timeworn trope of an “Asian Century” still wields significance.
A preeminent Asia does not independently threaten the position of the United States. Whether stormclouds darken the Polish corridor in the twentieth century or the Taiwan strait in the twenty-first, American power can endure alongside any continent that holds in its deck of cards the fate of the world. Asian wealth and potency shall, nonetheless, inspire conquests by dissatisfied powers.
China, strengthened and vengeful, desires the restoration of its ancient position whereby it dominated the known world and held aloft the storied tapestry of the Silk Road. The rise of a New World from beyond the periphery of the Silk Road offers a vexing dilemma to the revanchists in Beijing, whose nostalgic map predates 1492. The billion-strong Americas are too remote for China’s Belt and Road to assimilate, yet too powerful to ignore. As China cannot hope to visualize the United States, a nation too powerful to be manipulated within Old World power structures, it seeks instead to expel America and confine her to a distant hemisphere which might itself be someday bludgeoned into a compliant appendage of a Chinese-led international order.
Much as Japanese militarists had concealed their designs for hemispheric rulership behind the facade of an economic sphere for collective East Asian cooperation, Chinese ambitions crouch behind the proposition that an Asian Century obligates the continent to fulfill a destiny of global leadership. Though Beijing presumes its natural centrality to this destiny, the nation better positioned for future power and leverage is India.
India resembles, alongside China, more a consolidated civilization than a traditional nation-state. The extent of its ethnolinguistic and demographic sprawl prevents an Italian-style nationalization of its regional dialects. India represents not a unified culture whose deviant edges had been sanded down, but ten thousand nation-states combined into one. Among ordinary Indians, a pious commitment to the preservation of this unity perpetuates the success of the Indian national project. Where dreams of a sovereign Russian or Arab world had broken, India contrived a multiethnic republic out of an Indic subcontinent. Such success furnishes India with the force of an entire civilization, without which it cannot hope to rival China as a giant of comparable size and potential.
Beyond even natural resources, economic foundations, and geographic positions, demography best predicts Indian paramountcy. Within years, India will surpass its neighbor in population. By the mid-century, the imbalance will resemble that between France and Germany, when an Indian population of over 1.65 billion opposes a Chinese population of 1.4 billion. When Indian per capita income equals China’s, its economic lead will match its demographic one. A vaster Indian economy will confirm a superior capacity for investment in interests both military and international.
Explosive currents already seized the Indian economy since the 1990s relaxation of state controls. Adjusted for inflation, GDP multiplied nearly six times and per capita income tripled, while the percentage of the population in extreme poverty declined from 50% to sub-10%. The middle class expanded from 30 to 400 million, with estimates of 800 million by 2030. Such progress sustains a consensus, that the private enterprise of India’s workforce will afford them the road to developmental parity with the West.
The toleration of such free enterprise is better assured in India’s future than China’s. While Deng Xiaoping thought dangles from the mutable acquiescence of a narrow political board, Indian economic growth mounts the securer institutional safeguards of constitutional democracy. Though a regional kaleidoscope of parties, writing scripts, and languages complicate domestic and international market transactions, such difficulties in standardization protect a multilaterally-inspired workshop economy from centralized controls. Indian competitiveness further benefits from a younger, larger workforce whose productivity underpins tax revenues and consumer spending.
Foreign investors face a market of increasing economic controls, living expenses, and labor costs, within a society of absent rule of law. The fixation upon zero-Covid only accelerated the relocation of foreign companies to Asian markets with cheaper labor and less paranoid political infrastructure. A postindustrial China will observe a strengthening temptation by suspicious apparatchiks to impose desperate economic controls that might arrest the decline of China’s original advantages in labor and wages. Ultimately, this Chinese malaise owes its origin to Beijing.
The scale of China’s fall from grace in the world needed little involvement from Covid-19. By 2022 the Communists had poisoned ties with virtually every maritime power in Asia, guaranteed the permanence of military relations within the Quad, sacrificed its economic relationship with the European Union by its courtship of the Russian dictator, and confirmed to the developing world its treachery as a creditor. India conversely, sustained relations with every Chinese ally beyond Islamabad, even as its natural resistance to the Chinese imperialist model accelerates its geostrategic drift toward the free world.
No amount of Kremlinesque mendacity can alleviate the international notoriety of the Communist Party. Allergic to subtext and deaf to self-irony, the Communists offer an Orwellian goldmine for global mockery. Beyond social credit, manipulable health passports, and such sworn public enemies as Winnie the Pooh, absolutist theatrics likely sabotaged Beijing’s own timeframe to overshadow American economic power, through repeated quarantines of China’s largest financial centers over an increasingly impotent respiratory disease. Among the great powers, the Party’s sole ally is a dying, vindictive Eurasian petrostate with an Australian-sized economy and a Mexican-sized population. The theoretical completion of China’s “national rejuvenation” will feature an aged population in irreversible decline. No matter the undeniable rise of the Chinese state in our time, the original formation of Red China intercepted a still greater destiny for the Middle Kingdom which never came to pass.
Yet India never lost her chance. The world’s largest democracy, from common parliamentary origins with Pakistan, circumvented well-documented opportunities for tyranny throughout its existence (from Partition through the Emergency through today) to evade the fate of its neighbor. Civilian rule marshaled a successful popular legitimacy, alongside other measures, to survive. There prevailed a nationalist identification with the democratic model, with its judicial independence, legal regularity, and protection of natural rights. Its resilience will yet chasten doomsayers.
Indian rule of law remains meaningful. The requirement for consensus among elected politicians puts to shame the rubber-stamp ceremonies in Beijing; it prevents public experimentation by unelected cliques; it balances institutions and checks the weaponization of resources; it ensures the preservation of rights and the procedural reliability of the law in the objective pursuit of justice. Investment is safer and property is securer when a higher law incriminates the mandate for malice, murder, censorship, or theft. Mistakes are rarely existential; policymaking has greater difficulty to instigate famine or genocide.
India’s demographic transition was slow, yet relatively natural; her development is irregular yet organic; her society nurses sectarian intolerances, yet harbors also a ubiquitous patriotism; her government is underresourced, yet continues to work. Such is the price to pay for the preservation of the people’s dignity and self-direction. The decentralized American model required a century to industrialize toward its maximal potential. India has elected for a similar road, whereby the individual citizen, with its superior deliberative power, is free to test limits which central planners can scarcely fathom.
The rewards of freedom contour the strengths of Indian demography, investor confidence, and citizen empowerment. Here sits a creative power, free and vigorous despite its troubles, which in time will equal the West in income levels, living standards, governance, and technology. Her economic vigor will complement her strategic centrality toward the preservation of Free Asia. The Indian people will gradually steer their polity to align with this fact, in growing recognition of the free alliance to which they might confidently belong as an equal than a subject. The explicit pursuit of such membership will represent the decisive decision by India in this century. No longer will she abstain from the stage of world politics by her association with the non-aligned, whose historical influence depended upon their ability to play the two Cold War blocs against one another, but accompany this stage as a great power fit to actively direct history. India will, upon the survival of her liberties, eclipse China and sit amongst the great powers, possibly as the greatest, upon the world’s most powerful continent.
Modern times behold an Asian century, yet lessons from the American experiment tell us whereupon Asia the future will ultimately beckon.
Alex Williams is a rising senior at Brandeis University, where he is majoring in History and International and Global Studies, and minoring in Studio Art. Alex has been the summer 2021 intern with the Austrian Economics Center.
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