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The Asian side of the world - II

Jean-François Sabouret

Part Three. Constructing theories

The rise of Asia in the world economy

Immanuel Wallerstein

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1September 2012

2It is widely accepted that Asia has risen in the world economy since at least 1960, and especially since 2000. But what does this involve? And what explains it? The answers are widely diverse and even contradictory. Some argue that Asia (or even China alone) has always been at the centre of the world economy, except for a brief period between 1800 and 1950. These analysts consider that the recent rise is merely a reassertion of Asia’s historic or natural position. Others consider that what is happening now is relocalization of the centre of the world economy to Asia and that this is simply the outcome of a process that has occurred several times before in the modern world system, resulting from the functioning of capitalist systems. Still others consider that the current rise of China and of Asia is the end stage of a slow process over the past five centuries, which reflects another kind of “modernization” that is different from that in the west. Some even consider that the rise is temporary and will disappear (or may disappear) soon.

3Clearly, these various arguments are based on different and opposing political and geopolitical assumptions (and hopes) finding or seeking an intellectual facade. Let us try to pull apart the various elements of this debate.

4One issue is the decline of the United States in the inter-state system. I myself have supported this position. In the face of such a decline, there is obviously a rise of Asia but not only of Asia. There is also the rise of South America. And there are still other “rises”, as there is today a much wider distribution of geopolitical power in the world than there was 50 years ago.

5In my opinion, there is a slow tendency to re-centre the world economy towards northeast Asia (China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea together). It is true that this is “normal”, in that it is the result of the basic mode of operation of the capitalist world economy over the past four centuries. But it should be noted that it is a slow process and that in the past it took 100-150 years to bring about such a geographical turnabout.

6It is also true that the relatively spectacular growth in China in the past 10-15 years, and in other countries such as Brazil and India, will not last long. Such high rates of growth have never lasted for long, and this time worldwide depression makes it even more difficult to slow such a decline.

7What is missing from all these analyses is the essential point that the modern world system is in a structural crisis and has been for 50 years. The system has moved too far from the equilibrium. As explained by the sciences of complexity, all systems eventually reach this kind of impasse and then branch off. All that is certain is that it is impossible to preserve the existing system. But there are always two alternative outcomes at a fork in the road, and it is intrinsically impossible to predict which one will prevail. We will know 20-40 years from now.

8When a historical system is in structural crisis, most people continue to apply the rules of the failing system, which, however, actually intensifies the crisis, which is what is happening now. For example, the rise of China, northeast Asia and emerging economies, far from resolving the crisis, is making it still more impossible to resolve.

9Consider for example the fact that in China (or China plus Korea plus India plus Brazil), the number of people who now have a comfortable income (or, in the language often used, have become members of the middle classes) has grown considerably. Do the arithmetic. The result has been that the number of people in the world system who have such an income has gone from about 5-10% (or less) to 20-30% (or more). But the global surplus is about the same and must be divided by a much larger group. As the saying goes, the game is no longer worth the candle. Thus, not only are the global poor pushed to rebel but, more importantly, the globally well-off are pushed to find alternative solutions that will permit them to regain the levels of income that the present system offered them in the past.

10Hence, the current situation is not a simple re-centring of the world economy, and even less the restoration of a multi-millennial historical centre that some people see in China. Rather, we find ourselves in a rather chaotic transition towards a completely uncertain future, until our planet decides to tilt definitively towards one or the other of the two alternative outcomes.

11In this future world system (if the planet remains a unified social system), what will be China’s role? Will this future system even have state structures comparable to ours? Or distinct large cultural zones? Who can say? Will a non-capitalist system retain the worst aspects of capitalism (hierarchy, exploitation and polarization), or will we see, for the first time in human history, a relatively democratic, egalitarian system (the two aspects necessarily being linked)? Who can say today?

12All this is part of a great political struggle to define our future, in which each of us participates, willingly or unwillingly. If a relatively democratic, egalitarian system comes into being, the Chinese people (I don’t say China) will occupy a position similar to that of other people. If it is a hierarchical system, based on exploitation and polarization, it is impossible to predict where the Chinese people will find themselves on the global ladder, or the position of China, if it still exists.

© CNRS Éditions, 2015

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