Kishore Mahbubani: The world will see the return of Asia

January 14 , 2022


In just a few decades, huge leaps in science and technology, as well as globalization, have promoted economic and social advances in many societies around the world, especially Asian societies. Today, Asia’s GDP ranks No. 1 among the world’s seven continents, and four of the world’s top ten economies are Asian countries.


However, globalization has reached a crossroads. Global issues, such as COVID-19, climate change, and the wealth gap, pose serious challenges to global governance, while the current Western-led form of global governance has struggled to adapt to these new demands.


For much of the last 200 years, the West has dominated the world, but now Asia is returning back to the center of the world stage. Will Asia see the dawn of a renaissance in the 21st century? What solutions to global governance will Asia offer to the world? In his new book “The Asian 21st Century“, Kishore Mahbubani devoted a section to explain the potential for Asia’s renaissance and trends in the global structure of power.


The Asian 21st Century

Author: Kishore Mahbubani

Published in January, 2022

ISBN: 978-981-16-6813-5

Publisher: Springer Nature Publishing Group



Kishore Mahbubani is a veteran diplomat, student of philosophy, and has published nine books. Mahbubani is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Mahbubani is also a former President of the UN Security Council (Jan 2001, May 2002) and the Founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (2004-2017). Mahbubani writes and speaks prolifically on the rise of Asia, geopolitics and global governance. His nine books and articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times and Foreign Affairs have earned him global recognition as “the muse of the Asian century.” He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2019.


Download the ebook at Springer:

The Asian renaissance & East Asia’s new edge


Kishore Mahbubani firmly believes that the 21st century will see the return of Asia to the center of the world stage.


From the years 1 to 1820, the largest economies in the world were Asian. After 1820 and the rise of the West, however, great Asian civilizations like China and India were dominated and humiliated.


In several decades, Asia has achieved great economic development. China has become the world’s second-largest economy, and ASEAN and India achieved rapid economic development.


The recent pandemic has revealed some of the relative strengths of Asian societies. The author writes that the far lower death rates generally suffered by East Asian countries reflect not just medical capabilities, but also the quality of governance and the cultural confidence of their societies. Work ethic, social consciousness, and belief in institutions are key elements of East Asia’s “edge.” The rising levels of competent governance are both fueled by, and contribute to, rising levels of cultural confidence. All this is gradually eroding the natural deference to the West that used to be the norm in Asia.


China now arguably has the most meritocratic government in the world, and its balance of strong markets and good governance will be an appealing model for other countries.


With the increasing economic strength, the competence and confidence of East Asia will reshape the world order. It has already begun. Twenty years ago, no Chinese national ran any United Nations Organization. Today they oversee four: the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the UN Industrial Development Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization. ASEAN also shows extraordinary leadership. Under the strain of rising geopolitical tensions, ASEAN secured the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, helping to uphold a global, multilateral trading order. ASEAN also launched its own ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific due to fears that the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy could divide the region, managing to play a major role in regional institutions.


As China’s weight in global affairs grows, it will have to take on greater responsibilities. However, China doesn’t want to export its model. It can live with a diverse multipolar world. The coming Asian century need not be uncomfortable for the West or the rest of the world.


India’s potential to be a world ethical leader


Kishore Mahbubani sees Asia as the engine for globalization in the 21st century. In a world crying out for a strong, independent voice to provide moral guidance to a troubled planet, India is an outstanding candidate.


None of the three other obvious candidates—the United States, the European Union, and China—can step up to the plate now. America has gone from caring for the world to caring for itself only. The EU is faring no better, bogged down with the technical details of Brexit, while struggling to deal with Covid-19, terrorism, and a surge of migrants. China is sadly distrusted by the Western world as it is increasingly seen as a threat.


India is driving the revived Quad arrangement, and is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A long-standing trilateral with Russia and China coexist now with one involving the US and Japan. India has remained committed to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence principle, which makes India’s rise a more “reassuring” one.


From the author’s perspective, as the Asian Century draws near, India faces three choices for how it can navigate geopolitically turbulent times. India can align closely with the US. Or India can also integrate itself into an Asian ecosystem of trade and peace, but it has to face the rise of China. The best choice, in the author’s view, is to become an independent pole in new multilateral world order, as other countries in the world desire a third choice except for China and the US. All India has to do is to learn from its Southeast Asian and Chinese neighbors and open itself up to economic competition, in this way it would have the potential to become the world’s largest economy and a third pole in geopolitics.


Adjusting mindsets and strategies, rebuilding East-West relationships


Both the East and the West need to adjust their strategies to adapt to the power balance shift.


Kishore Mahbubani cites the West’s admission of China to the World Trade Organization in 2001 as partly contributing to the wealth gap and other problems the West is facing. But China has already joined the WTO; it is part of the global trading system and is incredibly integrated into it. What the West, and especially the US, needs to do, the author suggests, is to adjust to this new competitive global system, and rethink its strategy for dealing with Asia. It’s legitimate for China to aspire to become a technological superpower in its own right. Facing the West’s complaints, what China needs to do is respond with a certain generosity of spirit because China has done very well thanks to the West opening up its markets. Now, China can reciprocate by opening up its markets even more. That would also give the US and Europe greater strategic interest in maintaining good ties with China. It is also very important for China to make a big effort to reassure the world that they’re going to maintain the current rules-based order that the West has given the world.


At the same time, the West should accept the reality and adjust its strategy towards China and Asia. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has identified China as a “systemic challenge” to areas “relevant to Alliance security”, and tried to expand its reach beyond the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. This could end up exporting its militaristic approach to the relatively peaceful environment in East Asia. Therefore, all of East Asia should speak with one voice and say no to NATO.


Kishore Mahbubani advises the West to rethink its dominance of the world, for example, to give up control over the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Moreover, the West should reduce its military intervention in other regions and countries and use moderate means, strengthen the multilateral order to restrain the next rising power, and adopt a pragmatic strategy to influence the world through soft power, such as attracting the elites of other countries to accept American education to nurture their goodwill to the US.


The author believes that a powerful and confident US would be significant for balancing China’s influence, therefore the US needs to rebalance its competitive relationship with China. The ASEAN can help the US, and this is a golden opportunity to do so.