Reviews

Rising from the ashes

Asia Reborn
Prasenjit K. Basu
Aleph
₹1,999

Asia Reborn Prasenjit K. Basu Aleph ₹1,999  

A sweeping account of the history of a continent that has seen a renaissance despite challenges of war, famine and ideological conflicts

The crux of the author’s premise is the rise of Japan as the defining architect of Asia in the last century, and within its ambit, the concurrent rise of its satellite Asian countries. India needs to learn a lesson if it has to economically compete in the world market. Who else but Japan, South Korea and Taiwan could set a model that must be followed if it has to enter into the forefront of economic giants in the world. As Prasenjit Kumar Basu, an Indian economist based in Singapore, writes in his book Asia Reborn, “Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have achieved spectacular economic growth of more than nine per cent annually over four decades each.”

What is clear to Basu are the advantages of these countries being ‘hard states’ that ensures economic policy incentives to its industry backed by an intense domestic competition that has brought them to be the chief participants in the global market. India on the other hand, he argues, remains a ‘soft state’ with a civil service that was straitjacketed into a colonial hangover that led to more restrictions and control rather than focus on economic development. The economic development models of the Pacific Rim can aid in India’s dream of giving an impetus to foreign investment. Moreover, as argued by Thomas Piketty, French economist Basu too is of the opinion that investment in education, skills and innovation development as well as infrastructure are vital to a developing economy like India.

Economic giants

Coming down heavily on western colonial powers, the writer analyses how the nations which came under British colonialism in the first half of the century remained economically downtrodden whereas the influence of Japan in the countries which she occupied such as Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria rose to become economic giants because the Japanese encouraged programmes in literacy, infrastructural development and investment in modernised heavy industry.

Clearly, no European colony could match the economic rise of these countries. Apparently, the destruction caused in the social and political environment of the colonies ruled by European overlords was largely the reason for rampant poverty that remained the bane of these countries. British, Dutch and French colonies were bogged down in social conflicts with little attention given to modernisation. The British army and the foreign service held on to its dominance in parts of Asia until, with the efforts of political activists like Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi, Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh, the colonial powers were successfully ousted and nations began to slowly progress economically by emulating Japan and Singapore. Pax Britannica gave way to Pax Americana which in turn has capitulated its economic hegemony to the rising nations of Asia.

Apart from examining the economic history of Asia, Basu gives an interesting account of the colonial ravages in Asia especially the subjugation of Tibet by the Chinese at the behest of the British: “India and Nepal had always treated Tibet as an independent country, and it was only Curzon who had introduced the notion of ‘suzerainty’ into discussions about Tibet’s relationship with the Manchu regime (uncritically labelled ‘Chinese’).”

The colonial inclination of China wanted to liberate Tibet and, surprisingly, when India had substantial diplomatic presence in Tibet, Nehru continued his support of China’s notion of ‘suzerainty’. He would be surprised when the Tibetans were made to flee their land with the imposition of Chinese rule in Lhasa. Though India gave refuge to the displaced Tibetans, it remained double-minded in its support of China till the 1962 Chinese aggression that left India with a ‘bloody nose’. China ever since has economically progressed to becoming a world super power while Tibet languishes in its subservient state with the global powers hesitant to intervene in the name of freedom and independence. As Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, then India’s home minister, wrote to Nehru: “The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese influence.”

Collective community

Basu has indeed made an excellent effort to give a collective history of Asia much that the western historians had doggedly disagreed that Asia ever had any features of a collective social community. This, he argues, is an ill-conceived view of the continent which follows a common religious practice in China, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Indonesia and Japan, as well as dietary habits of consuming rice that is a “common thread that runs from eastern and southern India all the way to southern China, Korea and Japan.” Buddhism too forms a common cultural relationship and so does the proliferation of the Ramayana across western Asia.

Basu also examines the 20th century of destruction and war from Indonesia to the terrible famine that followed China’s Great Leap Forward between 1958 to 1961, the wars that tore Korea apart in the early 1950s, Vietnam War in the 1960s and the Gulf Wars of the eighties. Asia’s rising from famine and ideological conflicts to a continent of ‘new dynamism’ forms largely Basu’s sweeping account of the history of the continent. Western historians could not have imagined that “this vast continent — seemingly inert and supine at the start of the century — would rise anew by the year 2000 and stand posed to re-emerge in the position of leadership that it held a millennium ago, but had largely surrendered by 1800.”

Such a renaissance was indeed unpredictable. The book is indeed a notable collection of social, economic and historical narratives rising from the divergent histories of Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, China and India neatly enmeshed with the rise of progressive nationalism in Asia of the last century.

Asia Reborn; Prasenjit K. Basu, Aleph, ₹1,999.

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 1:08:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/rising-from-the-ashes/article19895944.ece

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