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In conversation with Parag Khanna

Parag Khanna
We recently sat down with FutureMap Founder & Managing Partner Parag Khanna for a thought-provoking discussion on a range of issues including the future of Asian geopolitics, multipolar rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, and the post-Covid world.

The geopolitical centre of gravity is shifting back to Asia. What are some of the most important trends to watch that will shape the future of this region?

PK: Asia’s geopolitical future is demonstrating the intensification of relations characteristic of a tight regional system. Both friction and coalitions are evidence of a system, one whose internal dynamics drive the region as much or more than external forces. Of course, China’s ever more ambitious military advancements and doctrines are the biggest factors. This is relevant for the overall military balance vis-à-vis the US and the calculations with respect to Taiwan, but also the overall power structure in the region and specific hotspots such as North Korea, the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands, and others. At the same time, power dynamics are non-linear. America’s reallocation of forces to the region and the coalescing of formations such as the Quad and AUKUS have quickly become a durable feature of the region’s power structure and will shape Chinese behaviour and the geopolitical environment more broadly.

In your book, The Future is Asian, you explore how different Asian countries, beginning with Japan, have served as inspirations for a process of ‘Asianisation’, especially in terms of economic development. What would be the next stage of this process, in your opinion?

PK: Lessons in modernisation and governance radiate across Asia. There is no longer one role model, whether Japan or America, but rather a constantly unfolding process of cross-border learning. Mature economies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia still have much to teach in terms of education, infrastructure, science, and innovation. China has reached extraordinary levels of wealth and other countries are now following its practices around special economic zones, for example. It remains for what I call the ‘fourth wave’ societies of South and Southeast Asia to reliably progress in poverty alleviation, infrastructure investment, economic diversification, and development of human capital. Given that this contiguous set of about a dozen countries represents the demographic seat of the region’s future with the youngest median ages, there is much on the line in these countries taking advantage of the lessons from their predecessors, and the major stake those mature states have taken in investing in them.

With so much of our lives now being lived online how do you see an Asian led world manifesting in the virtual arena, and where can and will this be most acutely felt?

PK: Asia is a leader in broadband and 5G, social media and gaming, online marketplaces and virtual currencies. With such a large number of digital natives and adopters, it is no surprise that Asia’s virtual footprint has become so strong in areas such as online gaming and e-sports. The sheer number of Asian youth guarantees that Asians are both active and prominent in both Western created virtual worlds as well as their own. A Chinese team’s victory in the League of Legends world championship certainly assures this will continue. Asians are also keen on Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) and other innovations that will further propel online marketplaces.

The ‘Indo-Pacific’ is becoming the focus of multipolar rivalry today. What sort of order do you see the region heading towards?

PK: Order needs to be understood both in terms of the distribution of power and the institutions shaping the environment. The geographical zone indicated by the term “Indo-Pacific” is too broad to be characterised by a single structure. From the Gulf to the Pacific Rim, there are actually multiple geographically discrete yet connected sub-systems. In the Indian Ocean, I expect a multipolarity driven by India and Western powers to be the abiding norm given the growing confidence of the Indian Navy and the presence of major Western forces in the waters. In the Western Pacific, Chinese expansionism with its naval presence and island seizures combined with the stepped-up American and Quad activities have made the South China Sea, in particular, more unpredictable and potentially dangerous. We can imagine both a stalemate rooted in deterrence as well as a conflict whose resolution will determine the major features of the order in the region.

You have created a “Belt & Road Heat Map”. What does this map tell us about the future of the BRI? What will it look like in 20 or 30 years, and is it here to stay?

PK: The “Belt and Road Heat Map” actually covers numerous high-growth Asian economies. The main intent is to assess the key drivers of growth, reforms, and investment opportunities in those societies, whether in Uzbekistan or Indonesia. Chinese investment through the BRI is just part of the story, because if managed correctly, it is the first mover that unlocks greater investment from other powers and corporations, and leads to growth that ultimately helps countries pay their debts. BRI has certainly become less global and more Asian in the sense that even as overall volumes of outbound lending and investment by China have pared back, the focus on the countries in China’s immediate periphery remains very strong. This is of course noticeable in Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Thailand and Myanmar in Southeast Asia. Ultimately, the long-term story is that infrastructure investment and connectivity will thrive across Asian borders, irrespective of whether China has been the lead financier or not. Two decades from now we’ll see BRI as one pillar among many efforts that promote a more frictionless Asia for Asians such as Europe’s Global Gateway, America’s “Clean Network,” and others.

What will be some of the long-term consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for Asia?

PK: I wish it had not taken the Covid-19 pandemic for some of the strength of Asian forms of governance to shine through, especially in terms of what I describe as the “new Asian values”. These include far-sighted technocratic government, mixed capitalism by which governments and the private sector collaborate to stimulate industrial development, and the centrality of maintaining societal solidarity. Asian societies that managed Covid well realise that these are among the key reasons why — and the rest of the world has now recognised the value of these virtues as well. More broadly, economic regionalism will accelerate. RCEP was signed at the height of the pandemic as countries realised that global supply chains are highly vulnerable to disruption. Asia has a high potential for greater self-sufficiency in food, energy, capital, technology, and other areas.

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Asia is going to be hit hard by climate change in the decades to come. What should countries in the region be doing to prepare for and adapt to the consequences of climate change?

PK: This is indeed one of the areas that worries me the most as Asia represents the largest number of people at risk from floods, rising sea levels, and droughts. Yet there is no common Asian environmental policy or technology transfer framework. Fortunately, some of the key technologies from nuclear and solar energy to coastal barriers and hydroponic agriculture are well entrenched in Asia, and innovative governments and industry players view the deployment and scaling of these breakthroughs as a major business opportunity. Adaptation will mean that new infrastructure investments be made with climate models in mind. I advocate in MOVE that climate migration be taken much more seriously and even preemptively pursued in ecologically vulnerable areas.

Could you tell us a bit about your vision of the “passport of the future” that you have recently written about?

PK: With health certifications such as Covid vaccination now on QR codes, a new digital layer of identification has been introduced into international travel clearance. It is very possible for other required documentation such as previous travel itineraries, educational diplomas, criminal records, financial statements, and so forth to be registered on a secure blockchain and accessed by government agencies processing visa or migration applications. In theory, the functions of a passport could therefore be embedded in an app. Such a radical leap in efficiency would certainly benefit billions of Asians travelling within the region and globally. Most of all, it will decouple mobility from nationality, bringing us one step closer to achieving mobility as a fundamental individual right for all.

Parag Khanna is the Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario based strategic advisory firm. His recent books include MOVE: The Forces Uprooting Us (2021), and The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century (2019). Parag holds a PhD from the London School of Economics, and Bachelors and Masters degrees from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.