Asian civilization in the modern world: Human and economic progress distinctly Asian

April 2, 2020

By  Zaidi Sattar

Asian resurgence in the 21st Century

Human civilization has traversed more than five millennia. For much of this period and up to about 1800 AD preceding the industrial revolution, Asia maintained a dominant political, cultural, and economic position in the globe having wealthy and prosperous empires like China, Japan, India, and Persia, accounting for over one-half the global GDP  in those times.

It was the Industrial Revolution that changed predominance of Asia about three centuries ago. Europe and America began leading scientific invention and innovation, launching the steam engine, replacing hand weaving in households with power looms in mass-production factories, and other breakthroughs in communications, thrusting Europe then America to become the economic powerhouse of the world economy. These developments soured but still did not diminish future expectations about Asia in leading minds. If the broad demographic and economic trends are sustained, by 2050, Asia is estimated to account for 52% of global GDP, as average income of Asians in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms catch up with those of Europe and America, signaling tectonic shifts in potential geopolitical power and leadership in the coming decades.  Napoleon is said to have prognosticated about China: “Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” There are projections that show that three of the top four economies of the world in 2050 will be Asian: 1. China, 2. India, 3. USA, 4. Japan. That has led many Asia watchers to exclaim “the 21st century could be Asian”, just as 18th century was European, and 20th century was American.

The Digital Revolution and international trade in which Asians are proving to be globally competitive is playing the great equalizer driving convergence between the rich and poor regions of the world. But the current pace of change is so immense that humanity has never seen its kind in the past. The advancement of Asians is not limited to just economic well-being. Indeed, Asian communities have spread beyond Asia and the Pacific and are playing leading roles not only in digital innovation, but also in enterprise development, knowledge advancement, as well as in political leadership, from Australia to the United Kingdom and North America.

The Digital Revolution and international trade in which Asians are proving to be globally competitive is playing the great equalizer driving convergence between the rich and poor regions of the world.

However, that does not imply the emergence of a unipolar world with the end of the Cold War bipolar world of western democracy and communism/socialism. It is the emergence of multipolar systems in various degrees of differentiation in terms of economic and societal configuration, from Saudi Arabia to Japan, China, and Indonesia, from Turkey to Australia. This Asian phenomenon connects some 5 billion people of many ethnicity – yet distinctly Asian – through trade, industry, finance, infrastructure, and cultural networks, accounting for 40% of 2018 GDP. Hopefully, as Asians adapt and advance technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT), in the 21st century of an integrated world order, the West will also learn from them as well. The resurgence of Asia therefore does not in any way imply the decline of the West. It could be the essence of a new world order that we can describe as distinctly Asian.

This Asian phenomenon connects some 5 billion people of many ethnicity – yet distinctly Asian – through trade, industry, finance, infrastructure, and cultural networks, accounting for 40% of 2018 GDP.

Asian civilization in retrospect

Ancient history provides convincing evidence that the inception of human civilization began in Asia. Archeological discoveries reveal that Asia was indeed the cradle of the oldest known civilizations on earth. Mesopotamia, located in the Middle East, housed the world’s oldest civilization, the Sumerian civilization.

The relevance of religion remains an integral part of Asian civilization as many of the core principles people uphold in Asia are rooted in religious belief and practices. Dominant religions in Asia are based on a common set of ethical beliefs and teach certain core principles of human conduct, such as sincerity and speaking the truth, the golden rule of reciprocity, honor thy father and mother, generosity, charity and kindness, love thy neighbor, you reap what you sow, do no harm, forgiveness is divine. Chinese philosopher Confucius, believed that people were born good but to uphold one’s virtues and integrity throughout one’s life, these values must be constantly practiced. Indeed, there is strong evidence that these core Asian value systems provide the required impetus to entrepreneurship and innovation that drives modern human and economic progress.

Asian Community built on Asian Values: a driving force of progress. For the first 15 centuries, the world’s land mass was vastly Asian, and modestly European. In those years, three-fourths of the world’s population were Asian, who gave the world much of the advances in literature, art, science, medicine, and religion. This is what contributed to progress in human civilization, at the same time giving it a distinctly Asian character that has lasted to the modern age in certain fundamental ways.

The march of globalization has given rise to the paradoxical diminution of national power over the determination of their own destinies, drawing globalists and nationalists at loggerheads with each other. But that need not be. There is no contradiction between the ideas of community values being distinct from national values. The common value of human beings across nations need not be the universal value, and could be different from the narrow national value. Respect for national values is no contradiction to inculcating a sense of global community with a shared future for mankind.  If “peace and prosperity” were the goal of international cooperation in the light of “national interests”, then there is no problem with safeguarding equal status and autonomy, recognizing and respecting differences, and eliminating the “center periphery” structure that could emerge in international cooperation.

The common value of human beings across nations need not be the universal value, and could be different from the narrow national value. Respect for national values is no contradiction to inculcating a sense of global community with a shared future for mankind.

Thus, advocating the true value of human beings pushes Asians closer to being globalists rather than nationalists. It comes from the recognition that the era of globalization calls for a more integrated type of human community. With the advancement of globalization, political multi-polarization, economic globalization, and social information, there is a movement towards rapid integration and closer links among countries.  Any issue specific to a country or region can draw worldwide attention and may evolve into a global concern – the global financial crisis of 2008-09 is a case in point.

A new Asian concept of community may evolve around the benefits to be gained in terms of economic progress on the back of peace and non-violence. The vision of a community of shared future for humankind depicts a broad picture of win-win cooperation for the future development of human society. It demonstrates the determination and capability of the Asian countries to build an open and inclusive inter-ethnic order and a world system that features lasting peace, universal security, and inclusive prosperity.

Chinese President Xi articulates this notion of inclusive global community thus: “As we live in the same global village, we should firmly establish a sense of a community of shared destiny, act in keeping with the times, grasp the correct direction, and make joint efforts to bring the development of Asia and beyond to a new level.”[Xi’s remarks as quoted in Dai and Wang (2018)]. That is no longer a dream but a reality in an Asia that is resourceful and full of entrepreneurial dynamism to compete globally and reach heights that were once the exclusive preserve of the developed West.

Going beyond the conceptual articulation, China has launched, among others, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which lays a solid foundation for building a community with a shared future for mankind through greater physical connectivity among contiguous Asian regions over land and sea. The initiative will connect more than 65 countries across Europe, Asia and Africa covering 63% of the world’s population and 29% of global GDP, and ultimately make it easier for goods and services to reach the growing middle classes as their disposable income increases. Companies of all types and sizes both inside and out of China in the infrastructure, telecommunications, trade, environment and financial sectors will benefit – including manufacturers, raw goods suppliers and logistics providers as well as financial and professional services firms and more.

Physical connectivity is concretized through massive investment in infrastructure across Asia and even connecting Africa and Europe where geography permits. The founding of a new multilateral development institution with Asian roots – the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – is proof of the seriousness of the greater connectivity mission. With a 100 billion USD of paid-up capital, $50 billion proffered by China alone, AIIB brings supplemental finance for the much-needed infrastructure investment that will be needed across Asia over the next several decades.

But BRI and AIIB together mean much more than just eliminating the infrastructure constraint. The two endeavors induce a breath of fresh air into the body politic of Asian nations forging cross-border cooperation among participating countries, first to enhance physical connectivity but second, and more important, creating the atmosphere and scope for greater win-win cooperation among Asian communities over the long run as they collectively reach greater economic heights for their people. This is what “peace dividends” are about. It is not just the avoidance of war but the joint cross-country endeavor of development cooperation in order to sustain a path of inclusive economic progress that is cross-national.

Economic resurgence that is distinctly Asian

Global analysts are sounding optimistic about Asia’s future. According to the ADB study (2011), assuming that the current growth trajectories are sustained, by 2050, Asia would regain the dominant economic position it held some 300 years ago, before the industrial revolution. What is notable is the ability of Asian countries to successfully modernize and develop economically without adopting western values, confirming Huntington’s (Huntington, P. 1996) assertion that the world is becoming more modernized, but less Westernized.

Asian economies are displaying dynamism like never before. Several Asian countries are leading the Asian economic resurgence: People’s Republic of China, Japan, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia. Some others like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, and Philippines are not far behind in growth dynamics. Considering the rising global and regional economic interdependence via value and supply chain integration, trade and communications, it is possible to conceive of an Asian Economic Zone that stretches from the Arabian Peninsula and Turkey in the west to Japan and Australia-New Zealand in the East. Of the $30 trillion of middle-class consumption growth estimated during 2015-30, as much as 96% is expected to come from Asia. Asia today produces and exports, as well as imports and consumes, more goods than any other region in the world. Asia also accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population and Asians will continue to remain a majority population of the globe for the distant future.

Asia’s current economic prowess is the result of over five decades of successful integration with the world economy with countries like Japan and the tiger Asian economies laying the foundations of export-led growth. That success is now being followed by another transition where East and Southeast Asian economies are linked with China, Japan, and the developed economies in cross-border integration of industrial production through supply chains giving them the title of “factory of the world”. While the region is attracting substantial capital inflows from the West, there is growing intra-Asian investment flows as the high savers Japan, China, Singapore, and South Korea direct their savings into investment in the other dynamically growing economies in South and East Asia: India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Bangladesh. The net result is an additive spurt in investment-driven Asian growth.

Investment and production integration are complimented by growth of intra-Asian trade. Though Asian markets are still small in comparison to those of Europe and North America, the trade volumes between any pair of Asian subregions—Southwest Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia—continue to grow faster than the average rate of global trade growth. East Asia’s main five exporters—China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea account for 4.2 trillion USD in annual exports, almost the same as the European Union and North America combined.

Like the days of the Silk Road, physical connectivity within and across continents becomes the catalyst for augmented trade and investment cooperation. This is where BRI becomes a global strategy designed to drive bigger and faster trade and capital flows between the east and the west covering two trade routes – an overland route connecting Europe and the Middle East to China by way of Central Asia, and a maritime route that connects China, South East Asia, India and Africa.


Assuming that Asian economies can maintain their development momentum and demonstrate continued resilience against a variety of crisis that may befall this region, it is not unrealistic to visualize an Asian Century in the future. The ADB study projects Asia’s GDP (at market exchange rates) at 174 trillion USD in 2050, or half of global GDP, similar to its share of the global population. Economies that would lead Asia’s march to prosperity include: China, Japan, India, S. Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. By 2050 Asia’s per capita GDP is expected to reach 40,800 USD (Purchasing Power Parity) with average incomes similar to Europe’s today. Poverty would no longer be the distinctive feature of Asia.

Asia’s rise will almost certainly not be smooth. Economic history teaches us that there could be many crises along the way; more importantly, the developing economies in Asia would have to avoid falling into the middle-income trap. For example, in the past 40 years, financial crises have reoccurred roughly once every 10 years. So, the region’s leaders must not become complacent. They must continue to reinforce Asian economic resilience by following prudent macro-economic, fiscal and monetary policies and by making its financial systems more robust.

Asia’s leaders must act with urgency if the promise of the Asian Century is to be realized. First, this will place a tremendous premium on mature, far-sighted, and enlightened leadership. Second is the willingness and ability of Asia to emulate the success of East Asia to adopt a pragmatic rather than ideological approach to policy formulation and to keep a laser-like focus on results. Third is Asia’s success in building much greater mutual trust and confidence among its major economies, which is vital for regional cooperation and income growth though trade integration.

Crucial for increased regional cooperation is strong and far-sighted political leadership, of which there is not dearth in Asia. Building Asia’s regionalism will require collective leadership that recognizes a balance of power among participants. Asia must adhere to its long-standing strategy of connectivity-driven regionalism. Regional cooperation (including integration) is critical for Asia’s march toward prosperity. It will become much more important for a number of reasons: it can help those Asian economies that are rebalancing growth toward “internal” (domestic and regional) demand to fully open their markets to neighbors in the region. Such economic interdependence could provide the impetus to forge new geopolitical partnerships with Asian roots, all for the good of a larger humanity.

As Asia becomes the center of the global economy, it will be in its own interest that the rest of world also does well economically and politically. The Asian Century should not be Asia’s alone but the century of shared global prosperity.

*This is an abridged version of the paper presented at the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations, in Beijing.

Zaidi Sattar

Zaidi Sattar is Chairman, Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI). He did his PhD in Economics from Boston University, and taught economics at Boston University, University of Massachusetts, and Catholic University of America, before returning to Bangladesh. He is recognized as a leading expert on trade, tariffs and industrial policy issues in Bangladesh. As Team Leader or Co-Team Leader for several PRI studies for the Bangladesh Government he made substantial contribution in the preparation of the 6th (2011-2015), and 7th (2016-2020) Five Year Plans, Perspective Plan (2010-2021), Perspective Plan (2021-2041), and Delta Plan 2100. His latest 2019 publication is the book, Bangladesh Trade Policy for Growth and Employment.