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March 30, 2017

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Insights into global power balances

"When many Western observers look at China," the former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani writes in his latest book The New Asian Hemisphere, "they cannot see beyond the lack of a democratic political system. They miss the massive democratization of the human spirit that is taking place in China."

At a time when the Chinese people have mobilized themselves to cope with the May 12 earthquake, with untold numbers volunteering to give blood, to donate money and to actually travel to devastated towns and villages to help the afflicted, it is easy to see the country's current vibrancy. There is a new spirit abounding, different from that before Deng Xiaoping launched the country on the road of reform and openness 30 years ago.

This book is full of insights -- and contradictions. Mahbubani praises the West for Asia's development. Asian countries progressed, he says, because they implemented seven pillars of Western wisdom: free market economics, meritocracy, pragmatism, a culture of peace, the rule of law, an emphasis on education, and a willingness to pursue advances in science and technology.

But while he says the United States has done more good for the world than any other country, he also calls it an international outlaw who refuses to be bound by "the constraints of international law."

What makes his book controversial is his assertion that "the era of Western domination has run its course," although so far "the West has refused either to admit its domination of the world or to contemplate sharing power in a new world order. This is a prescription for eventual disaster."

The thesis of the book is stated in its subtitle: "The irresistible shift of global power to the East." Mahbubani says that Asia is returning to the position that it had occupied for most of the last 2,000 years, before the industrial revolution catapulted the West forward.

"In the period from 1 CE (Common Era) to 1820, as British historian Angus Madison has recorded, the two largest economies of the world were China and India," Mahbubani notes. "The past two centuries of Western domination of world history are the exception, not the rule, during two thousand years of global history."

Citing Goldman Sachs, Mahbubani says that by 2050, four of the largest economies in the world will be Asian: China, India, the United States and Japan.

And that, Mahbubani seems to say, is the way it ought to be. But that raises the question: Why did China and the rest of Asia fall behind the West?

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