Geopolitically Europe is conspicuously absent in South and East Asia. This has been a trend for some time, but it has recently intensified. Seen from Asia Pacific where so much is happening, Europe is a distant dot on the horizon.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, not only was Europe present; it dominated Asia. European powers wrote the Asian narrative. The domination was not only military, but also economic, political and cultural.
Economically: whereas Asia corresponded to some 65% of global GDP and Europe about 17% in the early 19th century; by the early 20th century Asia’s share was reduced to just over 20% – while accounting for 60% of the world’s population – with Europe’s share having increased to 35% – accounting for just over 20% of the world’s population. The US made up for an extra 15% of global GDP, hence the emergence of the “West” over the “East”. In the space of one-hundred years Europe rose, Asia submerged; Europeans got richer and richer, Asians poorer and poorer.
The Asian exception was Japan which had emerged from feudal isolation in the mid-19th century to become an industrial and imperial power by the early 20th. But in so doing, in the words of the title of an 1885 publication by the leading Japanese intellectual Yukichi Fukuzawa (whose image features on the Yen 10,000 note), Japan had to “exit Asia and enter Europe” (Datsu-A – Nyu-Ô).
In 1913: The World Before the Great War Charles Emmerson writes: “A European could survey the world in 1913 as the Greek gods might have surveyed it from the snowy heights of Mount Olympus: themselves above, the teeming earth below.” And on the teeming earth were the teeming Asians, many laboring for Europeans, not only in Asia, but pretty much across the globe. Indian soldiers served in the British army, for example, in the military suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900-01. Chinese labor worked in France during World War I. Etc.
In China, following multiple rebellions, uprisings, repressions, and reforms, the imperial regime was finally overthrown in 1911. China’s search for its modern identity, for wealth and power, turned to Western inspiration. The towering literary giant of the period was Lǔ Xùn (1881-1936) whose novel The True Story of Ah Q, first published in 1921, a masterpiece, was one of the first products of China’s profound cultural questioning, language reform, and national transformation emanating from the 1919 May 4th Movement.
Then in the first-half of the 20th century, Europe proceeded to commit suicide through two world wars, trade wars, depressions, civil wars, revolutions, extremist ideologies, genocide, while Asian nationalist independence movements rose. To quote Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali poet and the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1913): “Where the mind is without fear & the head is held high/Where knowledge is free…../Into that heaven of freedom, my father/Let my country awake”.
The British, French and Dutch sought to resist the anti-colonial independence movements in their Asian colonies – including France’s war in Indochina which it lost with its defeat in Dien Bien Phu in 1954 – but to no avail. In the course of the latter half of the 20th century what the Indian historian BN Pandey labelled the “Vasco da Gama era of history”, the rise of Europe over Asia from the early 16th century, came to an end.
Whereas past narratives were written primarily by Europeans, the global narrative has moved to Asia and it is likely to dominate coming decades. The primary Asian actor is China – the emerging global power. Describing the Sino-centric geopolitical 21st century stage recently to my class at Hong Kong University I listed the countries I believe are the dramatis personae. With China at center stage, major actors include the US, of course, also India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan, the Korea/s, Russia, the ASEAN countries, especially Vietnam and Indonesia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and, albeit with a more minor role, Australia. Europe is on the side-lines. It is unlikely to have any significant influence on the writing of the Asian 21st century narrative. It has exited.
This includes the two former major European colonial powers in Asia: President François Hollande of France may meddle in Mali and other former African colonies, but he has no credible role to play in South and East Asia. As to Britain, following its disastrous invasion of Iraq under Tony Blair in 2003, it has become mainly commercially oriented and politically insular.
Europe remains an important economic partner and major market for Asia. In essence, however, Europe’s hard power in Asia has been replaced by soft power.
While Europeans wrote prolifically about Asia, Asian publications on Europe are rare. A brilliant exception is Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis. This includes descriptions of the quite numerous Asian entrepreneurs (mainly Indian, Pakistani and Chinese) who harbor ambitions in Europe and have become central actors in a number of activities. For example in Antwerp’s highly globalized diamond industry, the Jewish diamantaires have been overtaken by Gujaratis. The Gujaratis work too hard complain the Jews!
Asian entrepreneurs are also hot on the trail of acquisitions of prestigious European brands. Chinese Geely company acquiring Volvo and Indian Tata Motors’ acquisition of Jaguar are two illustrations from the automotive sector. Similar moves have taken place across many sectors. Chinese foreign direct investment (fdi) in Europe has leapt from virtually nothing in 2004 to USD20 billion ten years later.
Europe is favored not only by Asian entrepreneurs, but overwhelmingly by the recent tidal waves of Asian overseas tourists. Of the top seven “dream destinations” for Chinese tourists are all European, in descending order: France, Italy, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Greece and Spain. In Lausanne, Switzerland, is located HQ of the International Olympic Committee (IOC); I live near the Olympic Museum where every day there are busloads and busloads of Chinese tourists. The dream destinations have material implications: Chinese tourists are now the biggest spenders among all foreign tourists in France. Many romantic scenes of Indian Bollywood films are shot in the Swiss Alps (see illustration) – which in turn attracts Indian tourists. A Chinese company Fosun acquired Club Med, that iconic playground of the European 1960s generation.
Gastronomy is another major feature of European soft power. Some of the world’s best French, Italian and Spanish restaurants can be found in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, which count many European cooks, but also an increasing number of outstanding and often highly innovative Asian chefs.
In tandem with gastronomy there is the Asian boom not only in wine consumptions, but also in enology (the science of wine and wine-making). China is the world’s biggest market for Bordeaux wines. In Pallavi Aiyar’s book Punjabi Parmesan, cited above, there is a chapter entitled “Château Chongqing” on the acquisitions by Chinese of Châteaux and “grand cru” vineyards in France. Preference for Bordeaux wines notwithstanding, they are also present in the Bourgogne region, including the acquisition of the iconic grand cru Château de Gevrey Chambertin (see illustration below).
The Asian penchant for European fashion, luxury products, watches, jewelry, and perfumes is legendary. The huge increases recently in sales are accounted for in part by the Asian national markets, but obviously also very much by the rapidly rising number of Asian tourists, Chinese in particular. It is estimated that by 2020, China will be the largest domestic market for luxury goods in the world and will account for 44% of global demand. A similar narrative emerges from the art market: China accounted for less than 5% of the art market in 2006, up to 22% in 1914. Sotheby’s is doing roaring business in China.
European education for Asians trails the US considerably; however it is not negligible and it is growing. This is especially the case with Britain. 37% of foreign pupils in British schools are Chinese. As in the title of an FT article, Chinese parents “scramble” to send children to top British schools. Chinese and other Asian pupils and students are an important source of British revenue.
Perhaps most uplifting is the great East Asian love affair with European classical music. In South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Japan, there are major orchestras, conductors, soloists, pianists, violinists, flutists, and many music festivals. East Asia has the highest proportion of school children who learn to play a classical European musical instrument. This month in Hong Kong there is “Le French May”, which includes numerous musical events and concerts. On 10th May evening I was in City Hall to listen to the virtuoso pianist Lise de la Salle accompanied by the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong play Mozart and Saint-Saëns. During the day when I look out of the window of my 17th floor service apartment in Causeway Bay I see through a window across the street little girls taking ballet lessons! Lessons take place every weekday evening after school and throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday!
In the 19th and 20th centuries Europeans waged many bloody wars in Asia and subjugated and humiliated Asian people. The 21st century paradigm is radically different. Through its soft power, Europe is a playground for Asians, a boutique, and a source of cultural entertainment.
Of course this is soft power is far better than the brutality of past hard power.
But it raises geopolitical questions. Since the global narrative will be written in Asia and Europeans are geopolitically absent from Asia, why is there still such a heavy European representation in global institutions? Why in 2015 are two out of the five permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) still European (France and UK), with only one Asian (China)? Why in spite of their reduced clout in global affairs do Europeans still continue to dominate the IMF? Why are 5 of the G20 members European: France, Italy, Germany, the UK, and a special place for the European Union? This does not make sense, but worse it demonstrates, once again, the inability of the global institutions to reform and adapt to the ongoing profound tectonic transformations. Why not just limit G20 membership it to one seat, the one for the European Union, as there is one for India, one for China, one for the US, one for Russia, one for Indonesia, etc?
Text: Forbes by Jean Pierre Lehmann 17-05-2015