Assessing the prospects for the Asian century

Asian Century on a knife-edge

Image Source: Springer

John West, a longtime observer of Asia,  a faculty at Sophia University in Tokyo, has in his 335 page long book “Asian Century on a Knife-Edge” Palgrave Macmillan ,2018 (Available for free download at, provided a broad-brush assessment of prospects for Asia, and its selected major economics, to join the leading industrial countries in Europe and North America.

He uses GDP per capita, and economic and technological sophistication of the world’s leading economies as benchmarks for Asian countries. While GDP per capita can be quantified (but with well-known caveats), the author does not provide indicators of economic and technological sophistication for a nuanced comparison.

His examination of several challenges facing Asia in general and in individual major countries, with separate short sketches of Japan, South Korea, China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam, leads to a less than optimistic assessment of whether the 21st century will be the Asian Century. This is exemplified by the last paragraph of the book, quoted below

“Today, Asia is sitting on a knife edge. The potential of the region to generate good and happy lives for its citizens is enormous. But the requirements of success and the risks of failure are equally enormous… Indeed, anything could happen, and complacency of the region’s elites could be the Asian Centaury’s greatest enemy.” (P. 328).

John West’s skeptical view of Asia’s prospects is reflected in chapter titles (Asia’s Stunted Economic Development, Chapter 2, Asia’s Mythical Middle-Class Society, and Chapter 3). Incidentally (on PP. 69-71) he fails to recognize the rapid progress made in constructing and operationalizing toilets under India’s Swatch Bharat initiative, the dashboard of which depicting the relevant indicators may be found at ,

He identifies seven challenges for Asia in part 2 of the Book, the longest part, constituting nearly 70 percent of the Book. The seven challenges are: Getting Better value out of Global Value Chains; Making the most of Urbanization’s Potential; Giving All Asian a chance; Solving Asia’s Demographic Dilemmas; Fixing Asia’s Flawed Politics; Combating Asia’s Economic Crime; and Can Asian countries Live Together in Peace and Harmony?

John West has indeed identified major challenges facing Asian countries, though their extent and remedies understandably vary among the Asian countries. Among these challenges, he argues that “Asia’s demographic dilemmas may be the greatest threat to the realization of the Asian century” (P. 197).

As quoted earlier, on P. 328, he asserts that complacency of Asia’s elites could be the Asian Century’s greatest enemy. In a broad-brush approach adopted, and using less technical language for wider accessibility and understanding, covering such a vast area, such minor anomalies are inevitable.

Recognition of challenges faced by Europe and the United States for better perspective

The analysis in the book could have been strengthened if the following would have been at least recognized, and commented on briefly.

First, the implicit assumption in the analysis is that only if Asia follows the development strategy, and policies of today’s industrial countries, it could aspire to reach their GDP per capita and economic and technological sophistication. Several major Asian economies Japan, Korea, China, and India have followed un-orthodox policies to sustain what the Book acknowledges to be rapid growth and transformation. They can be expected to find innovative solutions to their challenges.

Second, while Asian countries face severe challenges, so do Europe, U.S., and Canada. Europe is negotiating exit of Britain from Europe (Brexit), with uncertain consequences for Europe and U.K.’s political, economic, and social systems.

Third, Europe is struggling to come to terms with large scale immigration, with major implications for social cohesion, and future technological and skill-sets development. As in Asia, education system in Europe and North America has their own challenges reflected in producing manpower with requisite skills and in challenges in improving productivity.

Fourth, Europe also faces major demographic challenges, with significant proportion of the super-aged societies (When population over 65 years of age exceeds 20 percent of the total) in Europe and the united states.. These include Germany and Italy, and they will be joined by 2020 by Netherlands, France, Sweden, Portugal, Slovenia, and Croatia. By 2030, United States and the United Kingdom will also be super aged.

 Asian countries however need to more urgently address the gender inequality issues in their ageing policies, as women are at a systemic disadvantage in current ageing policies, including in pensions and in health care and wellness programs. This is also the case for such high income and rapidly ageing countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Singapore; as well as in China.

Fifth, The U.S. economy and society are also undergoing a re-examination, with challenges for coherent and coordinated policies. Addressing inequalities is a particular challenge for the U.S. The recent Global Inequality Report suggests larger inequalities in the U.S. than in Europe can be largely explained by the policy choices made by them .This also applies to Asian countries, including such high income rapidly ageing countries such as Singapore.

Sixth, John West recognizes that the gap in GDP per capita between major Asian Countries and U.S. and Europe will decline over-time as Asia’s growth, due to still catch-up phase, especially for India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and China, will on the average likely to be faster than of the industrial countries. The weight of population (Asia’s share growing relatively), economic activity as measured by GDP in nominal and in purchasing power party (PPP) terms, by trade values and volumes, and market-size for many products will also gradually shift in Asia’s favor as measured by global share. The author could have examined the implications of these in a more nuanced manner than found in the book.

For the above reasons, it is difficult to be confident that the current advanced countries as a group will address their challenges in a much superior manner across the board in the medium and long-term than the major Asian Countries.

Many challenges, ageing societies, political and social leadership, absorbing immigrants in a manner which preserves national culture and values, inequalities (especially in the U.S.), constrained public finances and challenges of enhancing productivity growth, and others are common challenges between many major Asian countries and Europe, U.S. and Canada. The prospects are for divergent performance among leading Asian countries and among countries in Europe, U.S. and Canada in some dimensions, and for convergence in other dimensions of public policies.

Implications for India

The book recognizes India’s Post- May- 2014 development and social initiatives of the PM Narendra Modi led government, and this in turn has led to an optimistic assessment of India’s future prospects.

To quote:

“Over the course of the twenty-first century India could well emerge as Asia’s leading power… India is moving decisively ahead” (Page 45)

India is pursing policies to deepen its economic and strategic space, and raise its technological, managerial, and organizational capabilities by partnership with other countries regardless of their geographical location.

India and France’s initiative of International Solar alliance to give greater impetus to renewable energy is a good illustration of global leadership on renewable energy which Asia and Europe can undertake jointly.


The user friendly writing style, and good eye for relevant detail and anecdotes, drawn from his long-time observation of the Asian scene, makes the book useful and relevant to policymakers, researchers, academics, students, and those who are concerned about Asia’s future prospects. The book’s accessibility is enhanced as it can be downloaded free of cost, a feature especially important in developing Asia.

The book succeeds in communicating Asia’s inter- related challenges, with insightful sketches of various challenges in Asia’s leading countries. His warning that the 21st century of Asian Century will not occur automatically, and there is no substitute for continuous reforms in economic, social, political, and cultural spheres should be welcomed by thoughtful and balanced observer. It deserves to be widely read, and discussed. His warning that Asia’s economic, political, and social elites need to moderate their behavior to be consistent with national core interests is also well worth pondering seriously.

This piece was first published in MyIndMakers on 24 March 2018.