Asian countries, we are repeatedly told, are rising. But does that also mean that they are doomed to replay the bloody conflicts that divided the rising nation-states of the West in the 19th and 20th centuries? The current clash between China and Japan over their claims to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea is one of many danger signals.
Over the past month, angry anti-Japanese nationalists have been pouring into the streets of more than a dozen Chinese cities to demonstrate, provoked by the notoriously hyper-nationalist governor of Tokyo's proposal to buy the Senkakus. The retired Chinese Major-General Luo Yuan at one point suggested mining the waters around the islands and using them for air-force bombing practice.
This kind of rhetoric belies Chinese leaders' insistence that China's rise is entirely peaceful. China's territorial disputes with its neighbours, including India, grow more intense all the time, especially when they involve access to resources for its ravenous economy. Certainly, nationalism in both China and Japan is now further inflamed by the possibility that deep reserves of oil and gas lie near the Senkakus.
Japan seized control of the Senkakus in 1895 after militarily defeating China. Japan was the "rising" power at the time, eagerly embracing Western political and economic ideas such as the industrial economy and the nation-state. After its victory, Japan forced China to pay a huge indemnity – following another Western practice – and to cede, among other things, the island of Taiwan.
Prominent Japanese journalist Tokutomi Soho hailed this as a "new epoch in Japanese history," when "we are no longer ashamed to stand before the world as Japanese."
Japan's imitation imperialism was to prove catastrophic in the first half of the 20th century. But in the age of decolonization – the central event of the past half-century – many more Asian countries were to proclaim their new dignity in a world previously dominated by a small minority of white men. The Chinese people "stood up" under Mao Zedong in 1949. So did many others. The sense of humiliation that burdened several generations of Asians has greatly diminished. Asia's current boom consummates a revolt against the West and the revenge of the East.
Yet this success conceals an intellectual failure that could have profound ramifications for the world today: There's no convincingly universalist Asian response to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though these seem dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world.
Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the most rigorous critic of those values, is a forgotten figure within India today. Marxism-Leninism lies discredited and, though China's rulers make gestures toward Confucian notions of harmony, China's own philosophical legacy remains largely unexplored.
Yes, the "Washington Consensus," in which developing countries were prescribed a free-market, free-elections formula for growth, may lie in tatters. Beijing's Communist regime mocks – simply by persisting as long as it has – Western claims of victory in the Cold War. But any "Beijing Consensus" would have even less universal application than its Washington counterpart; it sounds suspiciously like merely a cynical economic argument for the lack of political freedom.
The earliest Asian modern intellectuals were beholden to European ideas. Working in a world shaped by European actions – "blinded by the dust storm of modern history," as Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore put it – they naturally embraced the nation-state as the prerequisite for modernity. And though these derivative, synthetic varieties of nationalism had some uses, their limitations and problems are now more clearly visible.
It was never going to be easy, for example, for massively diverse societies such as India and Indonesia to define a social, political or cultural identity without violence and disorder. Europe itself took hundreds of years to develop and implement the concept of a sovereign nation-state, only to then plunge into two world wars that exacted a terrible toll from ethnic and religious minorities.
So the European model of the ethnically homogenous nation-state was a poor fit even in Europe itself. That it is even less suited to multi-ethnic Asian societies has been amply proved by the plight of Kashmiri Muslims, the Tibetans and the Uyghurs in China, the Chinese in Malaysia, Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Kurds in Turkey and Tamils in Sri Lanka. These countries with restive minorities may seem to hold together. But they do so at great human cost.
Furthermore, the nation-state is fundamentally unable to deal on its own with such problems as climate change, environmental degradation and water scarcity, which spill across national borders. China's damming and proposed diversion of rivers that originate in the Tibetan plateau, for example, threaten catastrophe in South and Southeast Asia.
It's not just that the "emerging" world stands to repeat the West's own tortured and often tragic experience of modern development – it will do so on an ominously larger scale. In India and China, the pursuit of economic growth at all costs has created a gaudy elite, but it has also widened already alarming social and economic disparities. It has become clear that development, whether undertaken by colonial masters or sovereign nation-states, does not benefit people evenly within a single territory, not to mention across larger regions.
Certainly China's and India's new middle classes have done very well out of two decades of capitalism, and their ruling elites can strut across the world stage like never before. But this seemingly cheerful culmination to the anti-colonial revolution has coincided with a veritable counter-revolution presided over by political and business elites across the world – the privatization and truncation of public services, de-unionization, the fragmentation of urban working classes and the ruthless suppression of the rural poor.
There is no doubt that not just Mao but all the leaders of the Chinese Revolution would have rejected this strange denouement to their great venture, in which some Chinese people stand up while most others are forced to stand down.
Meanwhile, India, with its stable and formally democratic institutions and processes, seems to have come closer to fulfilling the nationalist project of the first postcolonial elites. Sixty years after independence, India has grown stronger, with a voice in the international arena. It remains an attractive place for Western corporate and speculative capital. Indian elites, like their Asian counterparts in Japan, are still content to make themselves a junior partner to the United States, implicitly affirming that the postwar international order will survive.
These Asian beneficiaries of globalization project an image of a confident and self-aware people moving as one toward material fulfilment and international prominence. And they derive their legitimacy as ruling elites in their respective countries from the promise – or the dangerous fantasy, as environmentalists would see it – that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans.
But India displays even more garishly than China the socio-political discontinuities induced by economic globalization: By fostering rapid growth in some sectors, it raises expectations everywhere, but by distributing its benefits narrowly, it expands the numbers of the disenchanted and the frustrated.
Up to a third of Indians live in conditions of extreme poverty and deprivation. More than half the children under the age of 5 in India are malnourished; failed crops and spiralling debt drove more than a hundred thousand farmers to suicide in the past decade. The feeling of hopelessness and despair, especially among landless peasants, has led to militant communist movements of unprecedented vigour and scale – the Indian Prime Minister has described them as the greatest internal security threat faced by India since independence.
Of course, as many of Asia's greatest thinkers pointed out, Europe's own transition to its present state of stability and affluence was more than just painful. It involved imperial conquests, ethnic cleansing and many minor and two major wars involving the killing and displacement of countless millions. In comparison, India and China seem to have arrived too late in the history of the modern world, with no continents elsewhere to conquer or native populations to subdue.
Nevertheless, as they "rise" with their newly consumerist middle classes in a world of finite energy resources, it is easy to imagine that this century will be ravaged by its own geopolitical rivalries and new kinds of military conflicts. In retrospect, the angry rhetoric over the Senkaku Islands may seem a mere prelude.
This piece is adapted from Pankaj Mishra's new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia (Doubleday)