Asian miracle? What miracle?

Sceptics believe the booming economies of the Pacific rim may turn out to be paper tigers after all, writes Raymond Whitaker

ARE WE on the brink of the Pacific Century, in which the Confucian values of east Asia will overcome those of the decadent West? It has become a truism among futurologists that it will be - and so many books have been published about it, with such titles as The Asian Challenge, that at least one Hong Kong bookshop has a whole section labelled "Pacific Century".

But the sceptics are fighting back. Britain's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is conducting 19 separate projects at a cost of well over pounds 2m to discover the secrets of the "Asian miracle". And the view so far of the research programme director, Gerald Segal? "There will be no such thing as the Pacific Century."

In the next issue of Prospect magazine, Dr Segal lists the "half-truths and dubious assumptions" behind what he calls "Pacific-chic". Not only is the idea of a "Pacific Century" not new, he points out - it was first touted in the middle of the 19th century by a US secretary of state, William Seward, who thought east Asia would dominate the 20th century - but Dr Segal disputes whether there is something usefully described as "the Pacific", remarking that London is closer to any major city in east Asia than is any major North American city.

Nor is there any political or cultural unity across Asia: "The inhabitants of Asia have never been a single unit and have never defined themselves as part of a single entity. Their self-consciousness as 'Asia' or 'East Asia' was given to them by Europeans."

Dr Segal is swimming against a strong tide. Prominent politicians of all shades argue that lessons must be drawn from Asian success. On a recent visit to Singapore, Tony Blair was impressed by the way forced savings are invested in infrastructure, while Chris Patten, a possible future Tory leader, says his experience as Governor of Hong Kong has convinced him that the state must shrink to create room for economic growth.

David Howell, chairman of the Commons select committee on foreign affairs, writes of "the coming fact of Asian dominance" in a paper published by the Demos think-tank. For the first time in centuries, he argues, "the issue is not Westernisation but Easternisation".

Predicting that millions of people in parts of Asia will shortly be living at standards "higher than their European counterparts, in superior physical surroundings", he says: "Asia may actually be leading the world in moral as well as economic terms, and ... tomorrow's ideas may well be found there already in practice".

Dr Segal, however, argues that, if "Asia" does not exist, neither do "Asian values". "Yes, many East Asians do work hard, save a great deal and care about family and education," he writes. "So did the Victorians or those supposed to be infused with a Protestant work ethic." Even the notion that there is an east Asian "economic miracle" is a myth, he adds.

One of the main proponents of this view is Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Stanford University in the US, who has pointed out that the West was just as alarmed at the explosive growth of the Soviet Union in the 1950s and early 1960s as it is now at the rise of east Asia. In 1957, one eminent economist concluded that "a collectivist, authoritarian state" was probably better at achieving economic growth than free-market democracies, and calculated that the Soviet economy might outstrip that of the US by the early 1970s.

Apart from Japan, the countries of east Asia, like the postwar Soviet Union, are booming because of mammoth investment rather than any growth in efficiency, says Professor Krugman, who calls it "perspiration, not inspiration". Nobody is suggesting that east Asia is performing as inefficiently as the old Soviet regime, but there is agreement that the "tigers" will grow more slowly as their economies mature. That is already happening in Japan, where growth has lagged behind Britain's in each of the past four years.

The new scepticism appears to have been absorbed by Mr Patten, who said in London last week that there was no need to fall back on "divine intervention" to explain Asia's economic transformation. "It has happened before," he said. "The pace of change is now very much faster, but the mechanics of change are very much the same." Asian economies would have to achieve "quality growth" to keep pace with Western Europe and North America, let alone catch up with them.

Messrs Patten, Howell and Segal all agree on one thing, however: with nearly half of all Japanese direct investment in Europe, and other east Asians following Japan's example, Britain is better placed than its European partners to take advantage of the region's growth. Whether or not there is any magic in the rise of the Asian tigers, they hope some of it will rub off on the British lion.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable