This book is breathtaking in its sweep and coverage, not just in length. Prasenjit Basu is a Singapore-based academic and commentator who is intimately familiar with all of Asia—East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia. In six well-researched chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue, it tells “Asia’s story in the 20th century”, about the post-colonial rise of a continent. There are several steps in the argument. First, “this book seeks to tell the story of the renaissance of Asia during the twentieth century”. One would expect this to be a well-chronicled tale, but it is a story that has hardly ever been told collectively. A single narrative about Asia is still considered inappropriate, because the Western media has led the world to believe that Asia is riven with deep-seated cultural differences that make it something less than a continent. Most people will instinctively accept the heterogeneity proposition. However, this is a serious book and the contention is not one that is asserted without evidence.
“The umbrellas of colonialism (and its post-colonial and Cold War effects) masked the underlying unity of the Asian continent.... The post-colonial elites were variously influenced by each of their separate colonial experiences—and only slowly rediscovered their pre-colonial entities in drawing the boundaries of Asia. In this book, I have included the countries in geographic Asia where religious pluralism is part of the current (or historic) reality.” This filters out several nations in West Asia.
The second proposition will raise more eyebrows. “One of the central arguments of this book is that Japan’s role in 20th-century Asia was akin to Napoleon’s in 19th-century Europe.... Although he eventually suffered a crushing military defeat, Napoleon’s conquest of most of the European mainland enabled him to effect widespread institutional changes that helped ‘modernise’ Europe: codifying civil law, strengthening administrative structures, upgrading technology, etc....” Similarly, although Japanese wartime atrocities receive wide publicity in the western press, “the role of Japan in nurturing nationalism in the countries it conquered, and in building the institutions of modern economic development (especially in Taiwan and Korea) is often obscured. One of the questions I address...is why countries that were longest in the Japanese embrace (Taiwan and Korea) have proved to be Asia’s strongest economic performers (other than Hong Kong and Singapore, both of which were also Japanese colonies during World War II).”
The third proposition is the obverse of the second. “While the institutional legacy of Japan is under-appreciated, the allegedly positive legacy of European colonial rule is much exaggerated. Eventually, European imperial powers built some railroads, a few desultory highways and some rudimentary ports; they decidedly did not educate the populations of their Asian colonies (in contrast to their white-populated colonies in Australia and Canada). In the popular press, democracy and railroads are still routinely referred to as legacies of European rule in Asia. This book will show how ludicrous such claims are.”
The fourth proposition rounds the book off. “The second half of the 20th century in Asia is better known to most readers as the era of the emergence of prosperity in the east, but this book is devoted to the proposition that Asia’s present conflicts, conundrums and challenges cannot be understood without the context of what happened in the first half. East Asia is dynamic and independent today because Japan stood tall against Western imperialism between 1905 and 1945, helping incubate nationalism across Asia.... In contrast, West Asia was smothered longer in the colonial embrace, and suffers civil wars that are legacies of that embrace.”
I have stated the arguments, with quotes from the author, briefly. Naturally, there are nuances that are country specific and India figures prominently. For instance, there is quite a bit on the Gandhi-Bose rift and India’s lost opportunity in the 1930s, the path to India’s independence and the post-independence import-substitution model. Everyone who explores developmental economics now accepts the role of institutions and history in shaping those INStitutions. This book isn’t about the East Asian miracle or its spill-over into South Asia and prognosis about Asia’s future development in the 21st century. It is an economic historian’s book, or a mix of economic and political history. Indeed, some or all of those four propositions might not be received wisdom. However, there is always a new angle and the past, or even the present, cannot be viewed with only a single lens. Before dismissing those propositions, one should read the book. It is a treat.