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Anticipations of the Asian Century

 3-4 May 2012, Col 2.01 Columbia House

Many have argued that the 21st century will belong to Asia. Above all, it is the economic success of the Asian nations, especially India and China, that suggests imminent Asian dominance. But how has this success been possible and where has it come from? It was this question that lay at the heart of the conference. The starting premise was that much of Asia’s recent economic success is predicated upon political systems and ideas put in place during the struggle against European colonialism and the formative years of the post-colonial nation-state. Through a close examination of the lives and visions of the architects of the Asian nations, the conference sought to understand the character and pace of these changes. 

Ramachandra Guha, in his introductory note, described the conference as the ‘first serious biographical investigation of eleven major public and political figures...who had a profound and determining impact on the history and politics and institutional culture of their countries...and whose lives and influence is indispensible to our understanding of 20th century Asia.’ In doing so the conference would ‘provide, collectively, a portrait of the emergence of Asia, the Anticipations of the Asian Century’.

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The first session was on China’s pioneering leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Chiang Kai-shek. Each speaker highlighted the lasting impact of the visions of these leaders on China. Rana Mitter, while uncertain about the cohesiveness of the concept or even the anticipation of an Asian century, concluded that Mao’s views, which influenced regimes and insurgencies across the globe, were drawn from a distinct Asian context of anti-imperialism and nationalism. Arne Westad, in his study of Deng Xiaoping, emphasised the role of the transnational experience in shaping the political thought and aspirations of these leaders. And Jay Taylor argued that the Chinese modernism which we see in place today borrows significantly from the ideas of Chiang Kai-shek and that these were not unique but commonly held visions of anti-colonial nationalisms.

The second session brought together two great contemporaries and later adversaries: Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru. Chen Jian used the life of Zhou Enlai to demonstrate the contradictions within the Chinese state building process which was positioning itself to challenge the global political order and the moral authority of the West yet was also deeply authoritarian. Sunil Khilnani, on the other hand, showed how the concept of persuasion and restraint underpinned Nehru’s understanding and practice of political power.

The third session shifted focus entirely on South Asia. Srinath Raghavan argued for a more nuanced assessment of Indira Gandhi’s legacy in the light of shifts in local politics and the global balance of power. Likewise, Farzana Shaikh highlighted the challenges faced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in negotiating Pakistan's re-entry into the Asian mainstream after decades of alignment with the West, and in defining a role for his country as a lead player in Asia.

The last session of the conference moved to South East Asia. In his discussion of Sukarno, James Rush argued that one of his lasting legacies was the idea of Indonesia as a product of both modern invention and deep authentic Indonesian roots. Sophia Quinn-Judge showed how ideas of universal brotherhood and the experience of international communism conditioned Ho Chi-Minh’s anti-colonialism. Finally, Michael Barr demonstrated that the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew for Singapore has been to legitimise authoritarian techniques and tight political control as being a fair exchange for economic development and progress.

The conference ended on a high note with a vibrant discussion about the connections between all ten leaders. This left us with a more nuanced understanding of how they shaped the future of their nations, and Asia as a whole.

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Anticipations of the Asian Century poster


Michael Barr
Senior Lecturer, International Relations, Flinders University

Chen Jian
Michael J. Zak Chair in History of US China Relations, Cornell University

Ramachandra Guha
Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs, London School of Economics and Political Science

Sunil Khilnani
Avantha Professor and Director, King’s College India Institute

Rana Mitter
Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, Oxford University

Sophia Quinn-Judge
Associate Director, Centre for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture and Society

Srinath Raghavan
Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

James Rush
Associate Professor, Department of History, Arizona State University

Farzana Shaikh
Associate Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House

Jay Taylor
Research Associate, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University

Odd Arne Westad
Professor of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science