February 27, 2010

Asia on our mind

"The Asian Century?"
So asked participants at yesterday's same-named conference (prior post) organized by our colleague Anupam Chander and sponsored by the Law Review here at the University of California, Davis, School of Law (Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall).
The answers were myriad, and themselves provoked questions. Indeed, participants on the panel that I had the privilege to moderate questioned the title's very premise:

'Where is Asia? When is Asia?'

 Teemu Ruskola queried. To this our colleague Keith Aoki added, in effect,

'What is Asia?'

The last "American Century" and the "British Century" that preceded it were different from this notion of an "Asian Century," Keith said. Those others concerned a nation-state; this concerns a continent.
I wonder.
It is persons in the West who put forward this notional Asian Century. Who treat "Asia" as a single entity rather than a mass of entities, as an it rather than a them. Who, at times, see its rising economic power, its rising population, its politics, as potential threats.
Is it possible that those earlier centuries, named as they were with state-centric particularity, were constructs of their subject namesakes? Possible that the objects of those other centuries aggregated threats much like some of us now do "Asia"?
From the perspective of those object persons, might the 1800s and 1900s have been, simply, back-to-back Western Centuries?
Even when pondering with particularity, did the object persons of the 20th view it not as the American, but perhaps as the Russo-American, Century?
Was the British Century a construct of Britain? Might objects of that 19th Century -- persons, say, colonized in Portugal-controlled Africa -- have seen it instead as the European Century? Or perhaps as the Colonial Century, as a time defined less by geographic map and more by method of governance?
Perhaps this 21st Century aggregation says less about "Asia" than it does about our mindset -- about how some in the West seem already resigned to an object status.
That resignation may prove premature.
The final panelist, Tom Ginsburg, reminded that other such prognostications have fallen flat; for instance, past predictions that Japan, Egypt, even Sri Lanka or Burma, would win dominance. Tom's own prediction: Asia will not aggregate into a supranational entity. Some of the many countries in that part of the world indeed may attain power. But they will wield it, Tom ventured, in ways that reinforce the old, the 17th Century, model of independent, noninterference-prizing nation-states.
In store in the 2000s may be not so much an Asian Century as -- to borrow Tom's coinage -- an Eastphalian Era.