[OUTLOOK]The rise of Asia’s economyModern society is living in an “age of information,” swamped by newspapers, magazines, broadcast and Internet media. We encounter a flood of news daily, and the average person finds it hard to tell which events are truly important to his country and humankind, and which are just “disposable” happenings. However, many intellectuals and scholars around the world acknowledge as a significant reality that Asia will play a growing economic, military and political role on the international stage in the historical flow of the 21st century.
For the last couple of centuries, world history was largely characterized by the fall of Asia and the rise of Western civilizations. More than 300 years ago, in 1700, Asia’s economic size was three times that of the United States and Europe put together. In 1820, it was still twice as large. The annual income of Emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled the Mogul Empire in present-day India from 1658 to 1701, was more than 10 times that of Louis XIV of France, who was living in lavish splendor at the Palace of Versailles.
The relative decline of Asia that started in earnest from the early 19th century reached its climax in the middle of the 20th century, and by 1952, the economic size of Asia was merely one-third that of Europe and the United States together. In just 250 years, Asia’s economy had gone from three times to one-third that of Western civilizations.
The fact that Asia’s economy deteriorated so quickly indicates that its standing and influence on the international stage had weakened, not only in the economic field but also in the political, military and cultural fields. While the United States and European powers were advancing vigorously across the entire world, the countries of Asia wasted their time in internal strife, civil wars and factional struggles, trapped like “frogs in a well” in refusing to open their doors to the world, and the people there had to suffer from hunger, disease and ignorance.
But since the second half of the 20th century, the Asian economy has started to revive itself, to reach two-thirds the size of the U.S. and European economies. In 50 years, it is expected to become as big as the Western economies.
This historical recovery of the Asian economy began in the 1950s with the revival of the Japanese economy and continued with the leap of the four “Asian tigers” ― South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore ― in the 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese economy began to develop in earnest and today, India’s economy is showing strong signs of a comeback.
The economic progress of the three major Asian countries, China, India and Japan, in particular is expected to provide the foundation of an “Asian renaissance.” In contrast, the role of the four “Asian tigers” could very well be buried as a minor footnote, having their 15 minutes of fame, in the forever and a day of history. Already, Hong Kong is starting to bow out to the fast and furious advance of the Chinese economy, and is now being absorbed into the “Pearl River Delta economy” that includes Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Macau. Investment transfers from the Taiwanese economy into mainland China are also occurring at a fast pace, while their industries are integrating so rapidly that it only seems a matter of time before Taiwan is ultimately joined politically, militarily and economically to China.
Singapore became an independent country when it was separated from Malaysia 40 years ago because the dominant ethnic Malay leadership adopted discriminatory policies against the ethnic Chinese. But as the Malaysian economy accelerates its globalization and sophistication, and as pro-Malay racial discrimination increasingly disappears from Malaysian society, Singapore could be united with Malaysia again in the way that Venice, Genoa and Naples, once prosperous and independent city-states in medieval times, were integrated into a greater Italian peninsula in the end.
What will the future hold for the last remaining Asian tiger, South Korea? As Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore stand a chance of being united with their historical counterparts, we are most likely to reunite with North Korea. Yet there is an undeniable possibility that we will sink to become a peripheral “Eastern barbarian kingdom” of China, as our historical rival had once called us. Or would a united Korea become powerful enough to follow in the footsteps of Goguryeo, which once stretched its kingdom into the Manchurian plains?
Ours would be an economic advance, not a territorial conquest, participating boldly in the economic development of the Chinese mainland and leading the effort in the potential development of resources in Siberia. Do we Korean people have what it takes to show our abilities to the world, acting as an intermediary power between the United States and Asian countries? The answer depends on ourselves.
* The writer is a professor of international finance at George Washington University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Yoon-shik