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How we miss the Great Shift East

Danny Quah - 17th May 2012
The Great Shift East

Many well-known facts are, in actuality, false. One such is how the Great Wall of China is humanity’s only construction visible from outer space. Another is how Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.”

Conversely, many facts actually true are obscure and misunderstood. For some of these facts, that fate is perhaps well-deserved, as a number of scientific truths cannot even be stated in everyday language. Certain other facts that nearly everyone considers obvious or well-known have boundaries that are indistinct and, as a result, unhelpfully permit both hyperbole and scepticism. One of the goals of research should be to map out those boundaries, so that both intellectual understanding and policy debate can be based on evidence rather than speculation.

The Rise of The East is one of those well-known but misunderstood facts. Sufficiently many books, newspaper articles, and TV programs have carried this meme to where hardly anyone can now plead ignorance of it. But enough ambiguity remains, so observers are free to project onto the idea both their best hopes and their worst fears. Not helpful in this regard is where characterizations of this Great Shift East — caricature, stylized, divorced from hard empirical evidence, insufficiently accurate — impersonate as fact. These simultaneously fan alarm, invite ridicule, and risk credibility.

A concrete and straightforward illustration of the Great Shift East is, therefore, both helpful and needed. “The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity” provided just that in the clearest and most direct way I could write down. I am pleased that others — on a panel of scholars and practitioners both — think I have done a good job with the idea.

Considerable previous research had, of course, already been published on the empirics of economic growth. However, that more traditional research focused on countries’ per capita incomes—because that’s what theoretical models of growth sought to explain—and eschewed location, co-movement, and national identity, in favor of anonymized subscripts in a statistical cross section. By maintaining a discipline of empirical research only when driven by theory, arguably, economics took its eye off what really mattered in the shifting global economy, leaving that big picture instead to political scientists, international relations scholars, and investment bankers.

In some of my earlier work on the cross section of country growth, I was even told to take out economies like China or Singapore, because they were obviously outliers and unrepresentative. But being outliers and unrepresentative, it struck me, was exactly why they were interesting. While “The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity” had a simple goal, it also got to bring back in all these other considerations of why the global economy needs to be understood as an entirety, not just as a bunch of economies taken in isolation. Otherwise, it was like trying to understand cloud formation by studying water molecules.

We now know that in a rush, the world went from being centred on the Transatlantic Axis, with BRICs merely a catchphrase, to where the BRICs conceit became a primary organizing principle for high-level international policy making, multi-trillion dollar portfolio investment, and geopolitical analysis. But, caught in that same rush, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, significant although it already was on its own, provided tabula rasa for revisionist interpretation: The 2008 Financial Crisis morphed to be merely Transatlantic, rather than Global. The 2008 Financial Crisis reflected the Decline of The West, simultaneous with the Rise of The East. The 2008 Financial Crisis was caused by global imbalances resulting from Asian Thrift, i.e., East Asians’ newly endowed with the financial clout but not the political maturity to be responsible in their management of international trade.

As historical reality unfolded, so too grew fear, uncertainty, doubt, and pushback. The German Marshall Foundation’s 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey found the majority of Americans reckoning Asia more important than Europe to their national interests, with the proportion rising as high as 70% among Americans aged 18-34. But the same survey also found that 63% of Americans viewed China as an economic threat, i.e., double the number who considered China an economic opportunity.

Asians themselves remain sharply divided on the Great Shift East. On the one hand, thinkers like Kishore Mahbubani have long argued that the world’s policy-making has unhelpfully lagged a reality where the East is rapidly growing in importance. On the other hand, Eastern decision-makers have continued to look West for all levels of engagement. Powerful Eastern sovereign wealth funds remain enamoured of investment in locations around the Transatlantic Axis even as Western governments look back at them with suspicion. At a much lower level of financial commitment, the Wall Street Journal just this month described a dating agency that charged Chinese women US$600 to meet Western men who got to sign up for free (the ad actually said “Foreigner”, but few people I spoke to thought that included Indonesian or Filipino men). What Great Shift East when all the exports are just one way?

The political scientist and international relations scholar Joseph Nye speaks of nations having “soft power”, in contrast to the hard power of obvious economic or military strength. “Soft power” is the ability to convince others to want the same thing you want, without buying them off or threatening to shoot them. While economic power has indeed moved, the important tokens of soft power, and thus of geopolitical balance, remain firmly moored. Soon the economic center of the world will be 10 timezones east of where its political center remains. This misalignment is historically never propitious, whether geopolitical in the sense of Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of Great Powers, or within countries where it often manifests in conflict between ethnic or religious groups.

The Great Shift East, therefore, is even more than usual a work in progress. Measuring it — making a large fact visible to the human eye — is just a first item of business.

This post also appears on Professor Quah's personal blog.