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The future is Asian, argues the respected analyst, Parag Khanna. But this piece of conventional wisdom needs unwrapping. Geographically, Asia is no more a continent than is Europe. “Asia” itself is not even an Asian idea: Europeans invented it. Asians did not conceive of themselves as being part of a single continental entity. The region is too vast and diverse for that to have been possible.

It still is. What is happening is rather a global rebalancing, as the historically brief, but world-changing, domination over humanity of Europe and its colonial progeny dwindles away. A multipolar and messy world will replace it. Will “Asia” make up a huge part of this? Certainly. China and India will be actors. But Asia is rather an arena than an actor.

Look at a globe: Europe and Asia are one continent. For historical and cultural reasons, it also makes sense to include north Africa in Asia, rather than Africa. This then is Eurasia, the continent of the long-lasting human civilisations. Historically, this supercontinent was home to Confucian civilisation to the east, Hindu civilisation to the south, Islamic civilisation in the near west and Christendom in the far west. To the north were the steppe nomads. The interactions among these neighbours were profound. But Eurasia was too vast to be, or to be conceived of as, a unity.

The Greeks appear to have invented the idea of dividing this single continent into two. The name is first attested in Herodotus, in about 440BC. At that time, nobody knew quite how vast what he called Asia was.

The British historian John Hale argues that the name “Europe” also replaced “Christendom” during the Renaissance. With Europe imagined as a separate continent, Asia was the name for the vast and diverse areas to the east. But only in the past few centuries did economic, technological and military change give Europe and its offshoots domination. The distinction between Europe and Asia became real in terms of military conquests and extraordinary gaps in wealth.

The late Angus Maddison argued that, in 1820, the real gross domestic product per head of western Europe was a little over double that of east Asia. By 1950, the ratio had soared to 6.5 times. But, by 2018 it had fallen back to just 2.4 times, almost where it was two centuries ago.

In 1820, Asia generated 61 per cent of world output, while western Europe generated only 25 per cent. By 1950, the Asian share had collapsed to a mere 20 per cent, while western Europe’s had reached 26 per cent. By 2018, however, western Europe’s share was down to 15 per cent, while Asia’s had recovered all the way back to 48 per cent.

Eurasia has rebalanced quite a bit. What about its weight in the world? Over the past two centuries, it declined, as output jumped in the Americas and populations also jumped there and in sub-Saharan Africa. But Eurasia remains the heartland of humanity. The share of the population of Eurasia in the world total was still 72 per cent in 2018, albeit down from 91 in 1820. Similarly, its share in global output was 70 per cent, down from 92 per cent in 1820 (with much of the rest, inevitably, in North America).

The big story then is of the recovery of what we call Asia, led by east Asia, from its steep relative economic decline in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the process, Eurasia has substantially rebalanced and so, quite naturally, has the world as a whole. This “great convergence” is also not due to some uniquely “Asian” culture. The very different cultures of Asia, and especially of east and south Asia, have embraced what one might consider European notions: competitive markets, free enterprise, liberal trade, education and the goal of economic growth.

Precise packages vary. They depend on the histories and political cultures of specific societies. China and India, for example, are extraordinarily different from each other. But many of these societies do share a desire for more prosperous lives. Yet this is not by any means uniquely Asian. It is universal. What is a little less so, alas, is the ability to organise societies in ways that make the achievement possible. There is no doubt that over the past decades, Asian societies, notably those of east Asia, have been hugely successful in this regard.

It is not at all surprising that this catch up by such a vast number of people generates huge opportunities for commerce among them, as the McKinsey Global Institute has noted. The creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, around China (but without India) suggests this may develop faster, though it also underlines the almost inevitable centrality of China in any such process of integration.

What then can we say about this rebalancing of Eurasia and so the world? The most important point is that it is natural. The extraordinary power enjoyed by Europeans and the US, their potent progeny, is dwindling. Not surprisingly, what we call Asia, close to half of the human population and home to some of the world’s historic civilisations, is leading the change. Barring catastrophes, this is also likely to continue. The world economy’s centre of gravity is simply shifting east. Asia then will be hugely economically and politically important. But it will also have highly significant internal rivalries and difficulties of its own. There will be no collective Asian “will”, other than for societies to pursue their own paths.

Meanwhile, the west needs to get two contrasting thoughts into its collective head. First, it must deal with the world as it is. Second, it must defend the best of its values, notably democracy and individual freedom, regardless of what anybody else in the world thinks. Who, after all, supposed life would get easier?

martin.wolf@ft.com

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