How can we explain Asia’s spectacular economic rise?
In 1820, Asia accounted for two-thirds of the world’s population and more than one-half of global income. The subsequent decline of Asia was attributed to its integration with a world economy shaped by colonialism and driven by imperialism.
By the late 1960s, Asia was the poorest continent in the world when it came to income levels, marginal except for its large population. Its social indicators of development, among the worst anywhere, epitomised its underdevelopment. The deep pessimism about Asia’s economic prospects, voiced by the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in his 1968 book Asian Drama, was widespread at the time.
In the half century since then, Asia has witnessed a profound transformation in terms of the economic progress of its nations and the living conditions of its people. By 2016, as my analysis of UN data shows, it accounted for 30% of world income, 40% of world manufacturing, and over one-third of world trade, while its income per capita converged towards the world average.
This transformation was unequal across countries and between people. Even so, predicting it would have required an imagination run wild. Asia’s economic transformation in this short time-span is almost unprecedented in history. My new book, Resurgent Asia, looks at this phenomenal change.
Given the size and the diversity of the Asian continent, looking at the region as a whole is not always appropriate. So in my research, I’ve disaggregated Asia into its four constituent sub-regions – East, South-East, South and West Asia – and further into 14 selected countries described as the Asian-14. These are China, South Korea and Taiwan in East Asia; Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam in South-East Asia; Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka in South Asia; and Turkey in West Asia. These countries account for more than four-fifths of the population and income of the continent. Japan is not included in the study because it is a high income country in Asia, and was already industrialised 50 years ago.