A Certain Future Amidst Uncertainties

By Yang Yanyi

Of the books I read lately, Has the West Lost It? A Provocation by Professor Kishore Mahbubani is most striking.

Contrary to the doom and gloom picture of the present and future world painted by some Western media, Professor Kishore Mahbubani has presented an optimistic new order of things. He passionately argues that history has turned a corner in the early 21st century: a cycle of Western domination of the world is coming to a natural end; a new world order, with China and India as the strongest economies and the Emerging 7 – China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia and Turkey and the developing world becoming active agents of change, dawns. This is perhaps the most significant corner humanity has ever turned, the Professor acclaims. 

Given that lifting sights from specific events and focusing on the longer-term trends and taking things in moderation has been one of our strengths and values, there are a few points I’ve drawn from this book which I believe are important and relevant. 
First, appreciating socioeconomic progress of the emerging and developing countries and its underlying significance for common good.  

By presenting ample facts and figures, Professor Kishore Mahbubani eloquently articulated the enormous improvement in the human condition, particularly as a result of the development of the emerging and developing world. 

On the economic front, being home to 85% of the world’s population—6 billion people, the emerging and developing countries have become key drivers for global growth and prosperity. 

According to the IMF, the emerging and developing economies contributed more than 80% of global growth since the 2008 financial crisis. In the Development of Emerging Economies Annual Report 2017 released by Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), the 11 emerging-market economies (E11) which includes Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey, contributed 60% of world economic growth in 2016 and their share in the world economic aggregate has been on a continuous rise. The McKinsey Global Institute’s recent review showed that other high performers including Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam all achieved per capita GDP growth of at least 5% for 20 years, from 1996 to 2016. And according to the new report from BMI Research, ten emerging markets, namely Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam are set to become new drivers of economic growth over the next ten years. 

Consequently, the global economic pie has been growing. Poverty reduction, though remains an unfinished agenda, has made major progress, with some one billion people being lifted out of poverty over the past 25 years. Modern education is spreading and literacy rates are exploding. And the size of the middle-class is growing. According to the Brookings Institute thinktank, global middle-class reached the ‘tipping point’ of half of the world’s population--3.6 billion in 2018; and nine in ten of the next billion new middle-class consumers will be spread across China, India and south and east Asia.

Economic growth of the emerging and developing countries coupled with their close interaction and cooperation with the developed countries has brought about enormous benefits. Among others, economic complementarity between China and the United States have increased economic growth, boosted industrial upgrading and structural optimization in both countries, reduced production costs, enhanced the efficiency and effectiveness of global value chains, and generated greater product variety and enormous benefit for businesses and consumers. 

Growth of the economy and the improvement of people’s living standards of the emerging and developing economies have unlocked new growth opportunities in many other areas. For instance, there has been an obvious rise in demand for services and rapid growth in China-US bilateral services trade. Two-way trade in services between the two countries rose from US$24.94 billion in 2007 to US$75.05 billion in 2017. The US was China’s second biggest services trade partner; and China the third biggest market for US service exports. 

To say that the emerging economies and developing countries have made remarkable progress is not to suggest that they are problem-free. Obviously, existing and emerging challenges, among others, unfavorable external factors like Zero-sum thinking, narrow-nationalism, unilateralism, and protectionism continue to frustrate their efforts to achieve greater socio-economic progress. Much more still needs to be done to achieve prosperity for all. However, 88% of the world’s population can and are forging ahead is an unstoppable trend which the world should rejoice at. 

Second, believing in the fundamentals—confidence and determination to chart path of development that best suits one’s national conditions.

Professor Kishore Mahbubani laid out three silent revolutions political, psychological and in the field of governance in the non-Western world, which went unnoticed by the Western intellectual circles and which underpins the success stories of the emerging economies and the developing countries.

Indeed, aspiration and struggle for independence and freedom from foreign domination has been in the blood and bones of the developing world. In many of their renowned works, late statesmen of many developing countries delved deep into history and concluded that wiping out generations of shameful subservience and timid submission to arrogant alien authorities and becoming masters of their own destiny was one of the great strengths of their respective countries.

From my personal experience of working on the African and Asian desks in the foreign service over the years, including numerous visits to Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as close interactions with G77 at the United Nations, I could feel strongly the growing confidence and fortitude of the developing countries to proactively shape their future.

For one thing, there is increasing recognition that no single model works for all countries. Instead of ceding the responsibility for their future to others, more and more countries in the developing world are charting their own paths of development and paying their own way in the world. At the national and the regional level, attention and efforts are focusing on the urgent need to get the house in order. For another, in more and more parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, there is growing commitment to staying true to one’s own core values, embracing clean, functional and accountable governance, a level-playing field and enabling environment and system for business, and rule of law. This spiritual and psychological emancipation and approach of seeking truth from facts have given full play to ingenuity, creativity, innovation and energy of their societies and have achieved desirable outcomes.

Third, unwavering in the resolve to upholding multilateralism to achieving comprehensive and equitable solutions to global problems and challenges.

With a critical eye, Professor Kishore Mahbubani examined the hubris and follies of the West in recent times. By quotingstrategist Machiavelli ‘……he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful’, the Professor urged the West to develop a good understanding of the new era and formulate thoughtful and pragmatic policy responses and adopt a better option. 

So, what is the better option or options? One can draw a great deal from Professor’s book as well as from the messages transpired from, for instance, the general debate of the United Nation General Assembly.  

Self-reflection and structural adjustment. It is common knowledge that while there are both internal and external factors that cause a problem, the internal one always plays the key role. The best way out and forward is to take a targeted approach to address the internal factor and do one’s own homework well, as the conventional wisdom tells us ‘to be turned into iron, the metal itself must be strong’; and to point accusing fingers on others and put blames on other’s doorsteps will not solve the problems.

We need not go to the past to find testimony to this wisdom, the present is full of it. Guided by the mantra of ‘Reform, Perform, Transform and further Perform’, India has taken a number of drastic steps to deepen structural reforms which have added strength to the country’s economy.To address the principal issue of unbalanced and inadequate development, China is pressing ahead with reform across the board, focusing on removing the barriers which prevents it from achieving full potential and promoting coordinated economic, political, cultural, social and ecological advancement. Many other emerging and developing countries are also devoting their energy and resources on reform and innovation to propel their socio-economic development into a high and sustainable growth path. A major financial and institutional reform initiated by the African Union some years ago to fundamentally change the way of doing business is another telling case in point. All these efforts stand in strong contrast to the lack of deep and honest self-reflection and sufficient resolve to address one’s fundamental structural problems in certain parts of the world.

Safeguard the international order. The unprecedented general peace the world enjoyed over the past more than seven decades was not a natural phenomenon. It was achieved by adherence to the purposes and principles the UN Charter by the majority of the members of the UN. That there are pockets of conflicts and that the two regions—North Africa and the Middle East are exceptions to the broad trend of peace and stability is by and large due to external meddling. As pointed out by Professor Kishore Mahbubani the West export of democracy and intervention has increased not decreased human suffering in many countries and that it is inevitable that the world will face a troubled future if the West can’t shake its interventionist impulses. 

Though unfortunately Cold-war mentality dies hard and there are still thoughtless impulse and tough-minded attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and to make the world in the image of the West, the overriding stance of the members of the UN is to uphold norms governing international relations and replace confrontation with cooperation and coercion with consultation. This is certainly the right cause for celebration. It is our firm belief that the purposes and principles enshrined in the UN Charter will continue to guide us to navigate global challenges, advance sound and stable relations between countries transcending difference in social systems, and build a world safe for diversity and harmony.

Strengthen multilateralism. Obviously and very unfortunately, the past year witnessed a resurgence in isolationist, protectionist and xenophobic sentiments in the political arena especially in the West. There emerged as some people referred to as ‘Trust Deficit Disorder’—trust deficit in the political establishments as well as in the concept of multilateralism and its institutions.

Yet, we shall not lose sight of the fact that the overall trend of the times remains upholding the open and rules-based multilateral system. This resolve was amply reflected at the general debate of the 73rd UN General Assembly. It was powerfully articulated by most of the members of the UN that the transboundary nature of the challenges as well as the compelling opportunities for shared prosperity demand more cohesion and cooperation. Living in an increasingly multi-polar and interconnected and interdependent world, the challenges to be tackled—sustainable global development, climate change, digital technology, cyber security etc. are beyond the ability and capability of any one country and demand more than ever a multilateral approach. Rather than retreating from multilateralism, the international community should double down on it. 

Stay committed to economic integration. It is a proven fact that opening-up of economies and free trade allows countries to grow collectively and enjoy co-prosperity. Against the headwind of certain forces to decouple economies, disintegrate the global market and disrupt the global supply chain in defiance of all the economic imperatives, most of the countries are redoubling efforts to forge closer economic and trade ties and regional integration.

On the detailed picture, ASEAN is intensifying integration efforts and coming up with concrete new deliverables, such as the ASEAN Agreement on E-Commerce, the ASEAN-wide Self Certification scheme, the ASEAN Smart Cities Network to make its vision of a “resilient and innovative ASEAN” possible. And through various ASEAN-centric platforms such as ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3 and the East Asia Summit, countries in the region are strengthening coordination and cooperation to enable their peoples to benefit further from economic globalization and regional integration. Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)has entered final stage of negotiations. Once concluded, it is estimated that, as the world’s largest economic and trade arrangement, the RCEP’s share of the global economy could account for half of the estimated $Book.Info$.5 quadrillion global GDP (PPP) by 2050.

The trend on the African continent is also toward closer and more productive cooperation. As the culmination of decades of effort, the historic African Continental Free Trade Area was signed in 2018. Once in force, this free trade area will be the largest in the world in terms of participating countries and the scale and higher levels of intra-African trade will redefine Africa’s place in the global economic and trade architecture. As proudly declared by many African leaders the momentous developments and regional integration on the African continent are the most remarkable and in no other region is the sense of trans-national solidarity and unity so deeply felt as in Africa.

All in all, we should be highly conscious of global uncertainties and not have any illusion that the path to long-lasting peace and shared prosperity will be a straight forward and level one. Despite ourselves, there are bound to be twists and turns, ups and downs, successes and failures along the way. We should not underestimate the disastrous consequences of the intransigent mindset and practices of zero-sum game and power politics. Yet, as we often say in China, we should stand high and not be distracted by fleeting clouds. We should remain confident of the broader structural forces. Whatever comes in the way, forces for pursuing peaceful coexistence and win-win outcome will prevail.

Yang Yanyi is former Head of the Chinese Delegation to the EU.