Asian Peace and Development: Prisoners of History

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
June 15, 2019


Image Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal

That the centre of gravity of economic activities and growth has shifted from the West to the East has become a cliché. That the unipolar world order has become a thing of the past has become a platitude. That China is emerging rapidly as a new superpower is another dictum. That India is yet another growth story of Asia has also become an aphorism.

Can the centre of gravity stop shifting? Can the erosion of US influence in the world stop? Can China’s march towards becoming a superpower halt? Can India’s economic growth slide back to its earlier pace? If all those happen, it will be a return to the status quo. That means, Russia can also re-establish the Soviet Union, and communism can return as a dominant ideology. Cold War may return and so would be nonaligned movement.

If the cliché, platitude, dictum, and aphorism turn completely real, the history of the future will, of course, be quite different. The truth lies somewhere else. While history will not fully repeat, transformations occurring in the contemporary period can have their twist and turns, and the future may look quite different from what is being visualized today.

Among all the above-mentioned transformations that are happening, one significant megatrend is the world’s economic centre of gravity shifting to the East. In fact, one may add that even the centre of gravity of military power has also been slowly but steadily shifting to the East. Currently, there are five nuclear-capable countries in the Indo-Pacific region in the East, compared to three in the Trans-Atlantic area in the West. In terms of population concentration and the number of countries as members of the United Nations Organisation, also the East outweighs the West.

Unfortunately, also in terms of numbers of terrorist organizations and incidents, drugs production and smuggling and piracy-related confrontations, the East is way ahead of the West.

It is important to note that deeper civilizational history, philosophical treaties, the birth of major religions make the West look younger and inexperienced compared to the East. The past clearly belonged to the East, and the recent past and the present belong to the West, especially since the industrial revolution that gave birth to technological advances and imperialistic expansions.

If the current trend continues, East is likely to recover its past glory and, of course, concomitant snags and struggles again in comparison to the West. However, the future is not going to be like the past! It is very unlikely that the ratio of differences between the Eastern civilizations and the Western territories in ancient times will ever be repeated. The decline of the West and the rise of the East are not going to take place in a manner that will restore the ancient order in its unadulterated form.

One of the main reasons why it is unlikely is the way the West has been able to resolve its historical animosities, may be out of expediency, and the East is deeply rooted in the historical hostilities and not being able to come out of it.

One does not have to dig too much into the past to find instances and examples. The animosities between France and Britain are common knowledge. What is the state of relations between the two countries now? The same can be said about Russia and Germany, the US and Germany (rather Germany vs. the rest) and even Turkey and Greece to a certain extent.

Looking at the East, the Israeli-Palestinian, Indian-Pakistani, North and South Koreans, and Japanese-Korean hostilities are deep-seated and remain so even after more than half a century of conflict. The inside story of Sino-Japanese feelings, despite the nice cover of trade and economic cooperation between the two countries on the surface, and Sino-Indian differences, notwithstanding superficial measures by them to get over the past, are materially not different from other kinds of enmities.

Japanophobia in Southeast Asia still persists. Sinophobia is fast catching up in many parts of Asia. Asians have turned out to be incorrigible prisoners of the past. Contrary to the Buddhist teachings that advise “focusing on the present,” the Buddhist countries of Asia keep dwelling in the past. Islamic countries are afflicted with revenge, extremism and terrorism, and sectarian conflicts. The Hindus–great believers in karma and rebirth–do not appear to be actively engaged in engineering their next birth either.

All seem to have become prisoners of the past and in the process have become pawns of the West who are not able to maintain the status quo in the global order, yet at the same time seem determined to retain their primacy. One of the best ways to stop the shifting of gravity of economic and military power to the East is to keep the Easterners engaged in their differences, contradictions, and hostilities.

The rise of Asia to its full potential is possible only if there is a concerted effort by the Asian countries to understand the past, but not remain in its prison and concentrate on the present opportunities to build a shared sphere of prosperity and peace.