There is a need to be quite ruthless about this. What is it that gives energetic Asian cultures their amazing cohesion and drive? To answer that question intelligently we have to apply the same methodical zeal as that used by the Japanese in the Meiji period, when they took "the best of the west" and grafted it on to their own culture - with spectacular results - using the slogan "Western techniques, Japanese values".
Of course, that is not quite what happened. With Western techniques came bits of Western values and culture, just as some of the leading Japanese opponents of the opening- up process feared would happen.
Now the boot is on the other foot. The issue is not Westernisation, but Easternisation. We, too, have to be clear-headed, not just about adopting the business techniques of those now in the ascendant, the Asian dynamos, but about some of the values and attitudes which lie beneath their success both as economies and as societies.
So the question is not just about Western economic and industrial methods, which are no longer at the cutting edge of modernisation in the information age. We also have to ask whether Western philosophy itself is still the commanding force it is assumed to be. Does it "deliver" the kind of civic order, and personal values on which that order depends, which once we believed was the Western monopoly? Or have we some much deeper lessons than economic ones to learn from the increasingly evident Asian superiority in so many spheres?
In short, when some Asian leaders speak of the hollowness of Western liberal democratic values - and the moral decay, the rising crime, the collapse of family loyalties, the spread of drugs, and the grotesque abuses of civilised codes of behaviour which this value system seems to permit, and even encourage - do they have something better to offer?
In the last decade, almost every Western prediction about Asia, and especially about Japan, has proved wrong. In particular, far from collapsing in the Nineties, the Japanese economy has sailed through the recession, with exports rising 40 per cent in the last five years and the yen the world's strongest currency. Excess strength is now its problem.
As with Japan, so with other Asian regions. I watched a BBC news programme recently which carried, as background to some story, a few quick pictures of Kuala Lumpur, followed by some shots of Singapore. A fellow viewer, usually well-informed, exclaimed that the BBC had got its pictures muddled up. How could these glittering skylines and boulevards, and these Manhattan forests of skyscrapers, be in teeming, impoverished Asia? There must have been some mistake.
Similar reactions occur in face of the statistics. Income per head is already higher in Singapore and Hong Kong than in the UK, and in Japan it is much higher. In Taiwan, it is about the same as ours. Incredibly, Japan alone accounts for 56 per cent of world net savings - as against America's 5 per cent. Add in the savings flow from the rest of high-saving Asia and we see clearly where the 21st century will get its finance. He who saves the money plays the tune.
These are not questions of projections, but of hard results. However, if one dares to project the past only a little way into the future, the comparisons are even more devastating. At present growth rates, hundreds of millions of Asians will live at sharply higher standards than their European counterparts in 10 years' time. These will include Indians, Chinese, Malays, and numerous other Asian races living in immensely prosperous regions, with a total purchasing power which will exceed that of the entire European Union.
Australasia has also been caught up in the Asia-Pacific advance. The ill-informed British impression is that Australia, "dumped" by the British when we joined the EC in 1974, has struggled back bravely by selling its farm products to its Asian neighbours, to Japan and to the Arabs. New Zealand is seen in much the same light - sheep farmers all, gamely fighting back. The reality is light years away. States such as New South Wales are pouring out high-technology exports and services to the booming Asian market. Their machinery and their software go into markets we hardly know exist. Meanwhile, New Zealand has emerged as one of the world's strongest and zippiest modern economies, with a respected currency and magnetic attraction to new industrial investment.
The ignorance does not finish here. Even those who concede that Asia is marching ahead comfort themselves with the belief that it is all done by autocratic regimes and state-driven investment, which will get its come-uppance. Energy starvation will dish them, we are reassured, if nothing else does.
Yet in fact, Asian governments are pushing ahead towards ultra-flexible and decentralised economic structures, whether in utilities and public administration or private manufacturing, as well as using nuclear power to free them from energy shortage.
Thus, the prospect emerges not just of richer regions and societies with far better public amenities, but of cleaner environments with more reliable power supplies than European governments can promise their peoples for decades to come.
The colossal misapprehension, or failure to catch up with what has occurred with such staggering speed and power in parts of Asia in the last decade, is widespread. It extends not just to the environment and physical infrastructure of modern Asian societies, which people are amazed to find leave British and many other European cities looking quaint and slummy, but to the moral and social order they house.
European and American leaders are never happier than when orating about basic values - by which they mean good family life, self-discipline, hard work, prudent saving as against spendthrift consumption, respect for elders, dedication to children's education and training, crime-free and integrated communities, suppression of drugs, freedom from Aids, responsible civic leaders, emphasis on duties as well as rights.
What, then, are we to make of the accumulating evidence that these "basic values", so sadly deficient in our own societies nowadays, are flourishing in allegedly backward Asia? Were we not told that Confucian philosophy imposed a fatal passivity on these peoples, and that they could only be energised by good doses of Western capitalism and market values? Or could it be that the secret lies in a mixture - between selected, elemental parts of the Western order, combined with some, but not all, Confucian values into a blend uniquely suited to the information age?
A particularly sobering comparison between Asia and Europe emerges in the state of education. Not only in the obviously booming cities and regions of Asia but in the impoverished areas as well, one can see an intensity of parental commitment to their offspring's acquisition of modern skills which our own society is failing to match.
Put baldly, this means that millions of children - Indonesian, Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and countless others - are coming out of school more brightly attuned to the age of computers and electronic knowledge than their European counterparts. If their parents, who often started in the age of primitive agriculture, have already lifted their societies to the front rank of economic performance, the mind spins to think of the impact as a fully educated and highly skilled younger generation takes on the Asian baton and leaves Europe still more laps behind.
Of course, the scene is patchy. Asia is not a bloc, or even a region. In the last four decades, it has been more of an unfolding drama roughly in five parts: with first Japan leading; then the initial charge of the "tiger" economies - Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan (all going ahead of the West); then the second set of "tigers" - Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand; then yet another set - the Philippines and Vietnam; and then the opening up of the giants, China and India, turning almost the entire Asian landmass into an alternate patchwork of glittering modernisation and traditional over-populated agrarian poverty.
In Gujarat, Bangalore or the Pearl River delta, we see developing the new Ruhr, the new Midlands, the new northern France or Italy, but in metamorphosed shape. Instead of smokestacks and energy-gulping plants and steel mills, there emerges a new industrial structure consuming new raw materials - knowledge and supplies of highly skilled workers.
Less visible, but no less important, are the underpinning structures of behaviour and attitudes which maintain social coherence in these revolutionary conditions of work. While the Western lens focuses on systems of government and degrees of democracy, the lattice-work of grass-roots' relationships right inside modernising Asian societies - what might be called the micro- moral order - goes largely unanalysed.
In particular, there has been a dismal reluctance to face a central implication of the Asian scene. This is that the social institutions of modern Asian society, and especially the family, are quite clearly proving more resilient and robust, and a better source of security, in the East than in the West.
None of the most advanced and dynamic Asian states has any kind of structure resembling the welfare state or a universal system of benefit and care provision. Yet, nor are these countries experiencing the disastrous decline in both the nuclear and the extended family, as well as in the binding pattern of the extended family, which is so evident in Western societies.
So the poles of Western debate about social security turn out to be set wrong. The choice is not between state provision and the jungle of individualism. It is between the failure of welfare state provision to provide personal and family security and the greater security that flows from families and neighbourhoods which accept their full obligations and duties to all around.
The Confucian adage is that the master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does. The distinction between labour and leisure, the pattern for measuring "work" and time-off and so-called leisure time in parceled hours - all these are concepts rooted in Western industrial society. Could it be that a more Confucian-influenced world provides a better foundation for 21st-century prosperity and social vigour than the Christian work ethic and the mutated and plainly tiring - or disregarded - values of the Western world?
How are we to respond? The first and most obvious task is for Britain, along with its European neighbours, to match the commitment and zeal of Asian societies in the development of their human resources - meaning not just the education and training in skills of children, but also an equal commitment to training and education throughout adult life, even into old age. It is striking, in this context, that Japan, with its characteristically positive approach, regards its ageing society not as a burden, but as a resource to be mobilised to encourage still further economic vitality and social cohesion. Britain must also build on itsundoubted strength in "exporting" its education and schooling. There are more foreign students in higher education in Britain than ever before, growing numbers of them from Asian countries. The economic benefits, both direct and indirect, are obvious and considerable. And too few British students are going to Asia's superb universities. The attitude of generations past that studying abroad meant going to European or American universities has to be revised.
The same set of prejudices operates when it comes to studying and adopting Asian innovation and technology. Too many industrial and scientific leaders remain locked, consciously or unconsciously, in the belief that technology is something the East wants from the West, and that we have nothing to learn from Asian methods.
The leaders of the Meiji restoration had no scruples about studying closely, and then seizing, every aspect of Western knowledge that would help them. It is time our own leaders showed the same perceptiveness.
David Howell MP is chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. This is an edited version of his piece from 'The Age of Asia', Demos Quarterly No 6, available from 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP, price pounds 5.Reuse content