Making the Asian Century happen

Optimism that Asia is about to enter a new era of relative peace and prosperity over the next decade - a broad sentiment evident at the recent Straits Times Global Outlook Forum - appears to be consonant with global trends. The rise of Asia is becoming a fact of economic geography as the centre of globalisation moves eastwards. The reason for the shift reflects a confluence of epochal forces: China's growing economy, sustained by periodic injections of liberalisation; the demographic bonus enjoyed by India and South-east Asia; the expected formation of the Asean Economic Community; and the growth of an Asian middle-class population that contributes to both economic buoyancy and political stability.

Yet, it is important to temper expectations, as Singapore scholar-diplomat Kishore Mahbubani cautioned. One reason: Strategic schizophrenia seems to be in the making. Against open trade - reflected in the way Asian nations are becoming economic stakeholders of one another - are the impulses of nationalism. And the United States, Australia, Japan and India are coming together palpably against the backdrop of China's military rise. Pax Asiana will be out of reach if there's an attempted encirclement of China and if there are continuing assertions of power by Beijing in the East and South China seas and corresponding air space.

Clearly, whether butter or guns prevail will determine the fate of Asia and influence the fortunes of the rest of the globalised world. There is scope for hope. War between great powers becomes a necessity when the capitulation of one power is essential for the preservation of another power's special place in the world. That hardly is the case for the United States and China, neither of which seeks global hegemony to an extent that's bound to exclude the other. Australia, Japan and India have reasons to block an assertive China, but not China per se. Thus, the Asian order would benefit if the Chinese were to manage their own rise by creating a zone of strategic comfort around themselves. That has not been the case in recent years, but it remains a possibility.

Asean can contribute to the new Asia by staying on course itself and serving as a model of consultation and consensus - a process it has carefully cultivated. Its economic integration will enhance its credibility as a broker and a buffer between the uncertain trajectories of the great powers. Individually, the Asean countries are not world players and can exercise little clout. Collectively, however, the 10 countries of South-east Asia could draw world economies closer in a rising Asia. Singapore, to which globalisation is second nature, would be an intrinsic part of that historical Asian effort.