Parag Khanna is Founder and Managing Partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario-based strategic advisory firm. Parag’s newest book is “The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century” (2019). He is author of a trilogy of books on the future of world order beginning with “The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order” (2008), and followed by “How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance” (2011) and “Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization” (2016). He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics.
Young China Watchers (YCW): Building on your recently published book, “The Future is Asian,” can you briefly explain what constitutes ‘Asia’ and how you arrived at that definition?
Parag Khanna (PK): There is only one definition of Asia, which is the Mediterranean and the Red Sea all the way to the Sea of Japan. The younger generation has grown up in a world where most books on Asia really only focused on Greater China or the Pacific Rim, with sometimes a shout-out to India and South Asia. There’s been too much of a self-imposed limitation on addressing Asia for the collective region that it is.
More importantly than that is the question: Does Asia have a meaning in essence instead of properties that make it a meaningful whole? I argue in the book that it’s been about 500 years, because of colonialism and the Cold War, that Asia has had a genuine coherence—that it possessed the qualities that we would describe in international relations theory as being a system, in which the countries in the system have more to do with each other than they have to do with other countries elsewhere in the world. Asia has not been a system for 500 years, but now it is a system again.
In the book, I go back thousands of years to explain how there are periods in history, which we also refer to as the Silk Road periods of history, during which Asia was a system. In the last 30 years, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Asia has been recovering its system-like traits. It’s doing that through demographic flows, flows of goods and services, and flows of finance and capital. All those are evidence of Asia becoming a system again.
YCW: One interesting argument you make in “The Future is Asian” is that China will be unable to dominate Asia and Asia will remain multipolar. Why is that?
PK: This is another area where we tend to have a very ahistorical view. We see that China is currently the most dominant power in Asia and therefore we make a linear extrapolation that China will always dominate Asia. We think that other powers are weak and have no agency or their own abilities to resist and so forth. But if you go back and look at history, it’s not quite the opposite, but certainly another narrative is far more prevalent. Ninety-nine percent of Asia’s history is the history of a multipolar region in which no power has been able to fully dominate others. In the grand scheme of things, China has been invaded much more than it has been doing any invading. This is generally ignored when we make extrapolations from today.
Not only is it far too soon to proclaim that China is going to unilaterally dominate Asia, it is increasingly clear that much like most of history, China will not succeed in dominating Asia. China’s rise is accelerating the rise or return of Asian multipolarity because it’s inspiring others to stand up for themselves in patterns that are actually not uncommon in Asian history. This pushback has been accelerated in recent years in lockstep with China’s growing aggressiveness and assertiveness. This might emerge as more tacit kinds of alliances between countries in the region to block certain Chinese investment. Asian countries are also taking advantage of China’s economy—they’re using the investment and infrastructure they receive from China in order to grow faster than China, which many Asian countries are, such as India.
YCW: Many of your books adopt a system-level analysis in international relations and economics. What makes this a useful method for analysing Asia today?
PK: You can’t really explain the world through the lens of only one power in a multipolar system. Geopolitics requires a global view because you’re looking at the sum total of resources in the system, the distribution of those resources, and how they can be shared across allies and partners. Particularly now, you can’t explain what’s happening in the global system without a view to Asia and to understand Asia you have to understand its relative rise with respect to other powers in the system. That’s why you have to be macro in these issues and ‘spatially holistic’.
This also puts China’s rise in context. China’s rise isn’t even a big deal compared to America’s rise a century ago. When America became a new superpower in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the world was truly economically and strategically unipolar. But today, China is rising in a world that’s already multipolar. Its rise is simply adding to and reaffirming the multipolarity of the global system. It’s also a reminder that the rise of one power does not mean the decline of the other. That’s far too common an approach that’s taken when we have geopolitical conversations. Everyone wants to answer the question of who is number one in the world: America or China? But if you start with the correct assumption, which is that we live in the first time in history where the world is truly multipolar, this opens up all sorts of possibilities about how powers relate to each other in the world. This is a far more interesting and realistic conversation about world order.
Everyone wants to answer the question of who is number one in the world: America or China? But if you start with the correct assumption, which is that we live in the first time in history where the world is truly multipolar, this opens up all sorts of possibilities about how powers relate to each other in the world.
YCW: In the book, you develop a framework of three ‘Asian values’: technocratic governance, mixed capitalism, and social conservatism. How do you foresee these values shaping discussions in the next five years around global issues like governance, trade, and security?
PK: I focus on these so-called New Asian Values in a much more domestic context in the book. I argue that, even across democracies and non-democracies in Asia, there is a certain sense that these values are operating in a de facto way. I don’t tend to focus on the kind of global governance layers with respect to these questions. In many cases, when we think of global governance, we think of it as inherently technocratic anyway. That’s part of what people call the democracy deficit.
I don’t think there’s a connection or an indirect connection between regime types and their attitudes towards global governance and norms. Part of the reason why it’s not the most interesting avenue to pursue is that Asians don’t have a top-down view of global governance in which sovereignty is outsourced to international supranational legal bodies, frameworks, codes, and rules. It’s much more interesting to be looking at bottom-up global governance and how Asians choose to govern themselves.
YCW: You’re also the Founder and Managing Partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario-based strategic advisory firm. What kind of skills should young professionals develop to succeed tin this industry? Which books or podcasts would you recommend?
PK: When I was coming out of university 20 years ago, there was this notion that you either go into the private sector or you go into government. You couldn’t possibly have a career that blends both in a hybrid way. But today, when I look at people in their 20s and 30s, they’ve worked in various industries. I think that’s a good thing because you learn different types of skills from each sector you work in. I would say that it’s important in the advisory industry to be sector-agnostic.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to know technology and economics. I have seen these as really big gaps amongst people who studied political science or regional studies or history. In a previous book, I wrote about the Geotriangle—geopolitics, geoeconomics, and geotechnology—and how so few leaders today are fluent in those languages. The third piece of advice would be to be global and to be geographically agnostic. Try as best as you can to experience the different geographies, political economies, and value systems around the world. Each of those is a contributor to success for anyone who’s trying to be an independent global advisor today.
Growing up in New York, my parent’s bookshelf had books by Alvin Toffler such as “Future Shock,” “Third Wave,” and “Revolutionary Wealth.” My wife and I wrote a book that was an explicit redux of Tofflers’ called “Hybrid Reality.” Toffler was a Labour Unionist and journalist who wound up reading lots about economics and technology and making these forecasts, and to me he was truly a futurist.
‘China Couldn’t Dominate Asia Even if it Wanted To’, Foreign Policy
Future Shock by Alvin Toffler
‘The US, China and the Thucydides Trap’, China Digital Times
— Interview by Jacinta Keast