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by Jennie S. Bev

The 21st century is already being referred to as the “Asian century,” which triggers various discourses on its terminological appropriateness, what it entails, how it would affect Indonesia and whether Indonesia's contribution to the pie as a whole would make any difference to the region and the century. Consequently, questions on what would matter to Indonesia in ensuring its own position are likely to arise and, hopefully, can be answered satisfactorily. 

First off, we need to reflect back on the two previous centuries: the 19th century, which was referred to as the European century, and the 20th century, which was called the American century. What are the similarities and differences between the current century and its two predecessors? Does it even worth noting? 

The 19th century was a turning point in scientific findings, following the invention of the atmospheric engine by Thomas Newcomen way back in 1712, which was improved upon by James Watt with the steam engine in 1778. The latter was the single most important driving force of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

The primary advantage of using a steam engine was that it didn’t need running water, which provided flexibility in deciding where to build mills and mining and manufacturing plants. In 1778, Watt collaborated with Matthew Boulton, who perfected the engine, thereby saving 75 percent on coal costs. In 1800, Boulton and Watt manufactured 496 engines, and by early 19th century the patent for the steam engine expired, triggering exponential development of its various components.

With ease of manufacturing, the British enjoyed economic dominance, which translated into political and social power, placing Europe at the epicenter of global trade. Combined with imperialism, British conquests in various regions set the backdrop for European universalization with the adoption of British legal systems in its colonies worldwide.

Those former colonies are now members of the British Commonwealth. Europeanization occurred simultaneously in the legal and ideological arenas, setting the stage for the ascension of Europe as the “majority owner” of the 19th century.

The 20th century was named the American century because of the political, social and economic rise of the United States after World War II, and its ascension as the sole global power after the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union. While it was called the “American” century, the 20th century itself was only truly dominated by the United States in its final 20 years.

In the first half of the century, the United States went from isolation to preoccupation with the Great Depression, its post-World War II economic recovery and later anti-war ideological liberalism. Overall, however, it was a century shaped by American values and ideological acquiescence by other regions, which placed the US at the epicenter of geopolitical power.

So, is dubbing the current century as the Asian century appropriate? We can answer it simply: it is too early to say, as we have just begun its second decade without any single dominant political, economic, ideological or cultural power of Asian origin. While China, India and four other members of G20 are from Asia, their positions as state actors cannot be separated from non-state actors. This is unlike the 19th and 20th centuries, in which states played dominant roles in shaping the direction of history.

It may be true that G20 states encourage a positive environment for economic development, such as the planned implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, and other policies encompassing local, regional and transnational economic development. That said, states don't work by themselves.

The actual actors in the 21st century are individuals and private institutions and companies. Compared with the 19th century, in which the British Empire spanned the globe, and the following one, in which American ideology won over most countries, it is more appropriate to refer to the 21st century as “the people's century.” And that doesn't mean only those of Asian origin, but all peoples whose interests are in alignment with the demands of globalization today.

Asian cultures, such as those of China and India, are known for their industriousness and competitiveness, with a strong sense of adhering to an authoritarian mentality. This has enabled Asian people and Asian countries to adapt to a demanding period of time in which the world is no longer spacious and contains endless untapped resources. The Asian way of thinking provides the underlying mindset required to finish well and cost-efficiently.

The paternalistic way of doing things, for once, requires doing things fast and within the required framework. This now tends to be “circular,” such as in renewable resources, rather than in a rigid “linear” fashion. And Asians are very good at it.

However, it is unlikely that China, despite predictions by some, will be the domineering powerhouse of this century. Its ideological framework, for sure, cannot be easily transferred elsewhere, and most countries disagree with its human rights practices.

India, which touts itself as the world’s largest democracy, has its own domestic problems that must be resolved. In addition, India’s cultural influence, aside from Bollywood's soft power, which has quantitatively won over Hollywood, isn’t strong enough to captivate the entire world. The cultural influences of both Japan and South Korea are strong in Asia, but they haven't captivated the entire world either, except for a few consumer brands that have started to gain wider appeal globally.

With the impending implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community, which will further bind the region’s 600 million people together, Indonesia, the third-most populated country in Asia, is at a crossroads unlike at any other time. The economic opportunity for the country is unprecedented. Combined with its relative political stability, increased GDP per capita that translates into enormous earning power, recently upgraded investment ratings and accessibility to low-cost labor, Indonesia is a prominent member of the industrial powerhouse that is Asia.

On paper, this makes a compelling publicity statement and portfolio prospectus, as Indonesia is a gem that no one should underestimate. Considering its huge population, geographically strategic location and economic potential, Indonesia is already at the forefront of Asia.

Yet, despite regional organizations such as ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Asian countries in general haven’t achieved economic and political integration, unlike in Europe. Since the 21st century has been mainly built and influenced by individual actors instead of state actors, it is both a challenge and opportunity for Indonesia to reach new heights in influence through talented and skilled individuals with international networking capabilities and high-level influence.

The 21st century is an unprecedented period that is far different than its two predecessors. It's a “people” century, first and foremost, and many of the actors are expected to be from Asia or be able to think the way Asians do. Perhaps the most appropriate nickname for the 21st century is the “think Asia century.”[]

Strategic Review, May 1, 2012


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