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Nayan Chanda Author, Journalist, and Editor

Q&A with Nayan Chanda
Monday, May 21st, 2012
Nayan Chanda

Nayan Chanda

Emanuel Pastreich, President of The Asia Institute, recently had an opportunity to speak with Nayan Chanda, renowned Indian author and journalist, about Korea’s new global role. Mr. Chanda is one of the leading experts on the topic of globalization. His comments on Korea are of particular value because of his conception which does not assume the West to be the center of globalization forces. Mr. Chanda has visited Korea frequently and also held a talk related to this issue at the Asia Institute in 2009. His work is admired for his strong historical sense: he traces globalization, largely based on trade, back over the last two millennia.

Chanda’s best known book is Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization (Yale University Press, 2007). It is an insightful discussion of the process of globalization over the last two thousand years. Chanda posits that globalization is driven by traders seeking profits, preachers carrying out a divine mission, adventurers in search of fortune and glory, and warriors seeking loot and power. The book has been translated into Chinese, French, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Turkish amd Portuguese. Another of his books, Brother Enemy: The War After the War, is probably the most comprehensive study of the aftermath of the Vietnam Civil War and its implications for Southeast Asia. He also co-authored the book, The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11, with Strobe Talbott, President of Brookings Institution.

It is an honor to have you here with us today. You have had a chance to watch Korea evolve over the years as a journalist and writer. Can you reflect on recent political developments in Korea and put them in context for us?

I have watched Korea for decades and find the rapid evolution of that country quite remarkable. We have seen the emergence of a mature political system since the era of Kim Dae-jung, with a diverse political debate and concerns about certain issues that were not on the table previously. I think that the evolution up through President Lee Myung-bak is quite striking. One wonders what the implications will be for the presidential election this year. Parallel to the political development of Korea has been its astonishing technological evolution. We now find in Korea the most connected country in the world. It has moved ahead of many industrialized countries, and its technological prowess, from automobiles to computers, from silicon wafers to power plants and the latest tablet by Samsung now sets global standards.

How does the Korea you see today look in contrast to the Korea that you first encountered as a journalist and writer?

Korea was a very stiff place when I first arrived here. The environment was formal in terms of meetings, and it was aloof in terms of personal exchanges. Korea had had a strong military at the center of the political system and that culture made personal interactions and public events quite stiff. The changes over the last fifteen years have been astonishing. Now we have leaders who feel they need to respond to the needs of all citizens by being accessible and flexible. The recent mayoral election in Seoul was another indicator of increased political maturity. The election of Park Won Su confirms that voters clearly are interested in significant change and a more inclusive, more open, society. Such an attitude is a radical change from previous eras when the military set the style and rapid industrialization was the primary concern of most policy makers.

Many of your writings treat globalization in a historical context. That perspective is most welcome, especially for someone like myself who studied premodern history and culture.

Of course I am not an expert in Korean history. But I think we can attribute some of the problems to the degree to which the whims of one individual or other once decided the fate of a country. The Korean Joseon Kingdom’s decision to keep out all foreigners can be seen largely as the personal whim of the King. In Korea, and in China, the decision-making process for policy was limited to a small group in the palace that could not effectively evaluate the full potential of not only their decisions, but also the challenges to be found in the West. There was plenty of smuggling and informal trade even then, but the nation remained closed to open trade.

One can see many examples of this autocratic response not only to external challenges, but also to internal innovation. Let us take the case of admiral Zheng He in the Ming Dynasty. At the beginning of the 15th century Zheng He built the world’s most impressive navy at that time. His innovations and his fearless efforts brought about tremendous advancements in marine sciences and navigation in just one generation. His seven voyages through Southeast Asia and all the way to Africa established new potential trade routes and gave the Chinese confidence in their ability to conduct long-distance expeditions. China was then poised to become the major maritime power, but the advances of those twentyfive years were cast aside by a subsequent autocratic government and an ignorant emperor. China went back to being an empire facing inward. In the nineteenth century, when Europe was modernizing its navy, the Empress Dowager Cixi spent the navy’s budget to build a pavilion shaped like a boat at the summer palace.

Looking at the global roles of China and India today in historical context is also interesting. In a sense, we can say that although such dominant roles for these nations seem quite alien to many in the West, they have merely regained the role that they played previously, even just a few centuries ago. But at the same time, it is a new world. China and India now have global interests, and a global cultural reach, that they have never had before.

Well, it is indeed a new world that we are witnessing, but that world is still rooted in the past. China and India together produced nearly half the world’s gross domestic product in 1700. Both nations had substantial manufacturing bases far before anything in terms of sophistication or scale emerged in Europe. The Chinese were making cast iron in the fourteenth century and they exported it to Europe where such technologies did not exist. The Indians were also leaders in the development of high-quality steel. Both India and China focused on manufacturing technology, the process by which ceramics and silk are produced on a mass scale to high standards of quality. There was no such concept in feudal Europe. As a result, Indian textiles dominated the world until the Industrial Revolution. England had a chronic trade deficit with China through the middle of the nineteenth century.

India and China have certain inherent advantages now, and even back then. Their civilizations are ancient, and strong scholarly traditions in mathematics, engineering and administration served as the foundations for such manufacturing knowhow. And the large populations of these two nations, far beyond anything Europe was able to support before the second half of the 19th century, also offered distinct advantages. Since the 1990s, these two countries have managed to reclaim some of the economic dominance they had three hundred years ago. The scale that India and China work on is quite different than that which we find in the West, and this of course has its own advantages.

You have mentioned technology and its role in the development of Asia. It is clear that the ability of Koreans, and Asians in general, to effectively apply technology has been a major factor in their rise.

I think we find ourselves today on the threshold of a major technological revolution. The changes going on around us today are the equivalent of electrification in the 20th century. Of course electricity was discovered long before it had any practical impact on our lives. The potential for using electricity was there, but people had not figured out a way to design small electric generators, or to distribute electricity through a grid efficiently.

We are reaching the point at which microprocessors will be an essential part of every device. The next generation of network technology requires not only that every machine have an IP address, but also that they can be controlled and function based on the digital signal that they receive from the internet. This development means that we are moving towards a stage at which every device will be controlled by a small handset. The expansion of the internet into everyday products will open up a new horizon for innovation. Korea has taken the right steps to position itself for a major role in this new technological revolution. I think the development of personal technology that can mesh seamlessly with the Internet is the way of the future. Korea is poised to be a major player.

When I came to Korea in 2007, I saw many articles that suggested that Northeast Asia could achieve an economic integration along the lines of the European Union. But recent problems in the European Union have made such analogies rather unpopular. Asia will have to follow its own path. I think history remains a major factor in efforts to promote greater integration. How history is interpreted and how it is used in the political discourse of each nation can impact progress. What I find encouraging in the case of East Asia is that young people across Asia are speaking the same language, using similar terms and assumptions and wrestling with the same issues in the discourse of pop culture. For the next generation there is the potential to create a new dialogue less confined by historical issues of the past. A new Asia can emerge from that new discursive space.

The new presence of India and Southeast Asia in the global economy is slowly restructuring East Asia as well. Let us take the example of Sichuan Province in China. Sichuan was something of a backwater in China, far away from Beijing and not an economic powerhouse. But now Sichuan is benefiting immensely from its ties to India and Southeast Asia. Its geographical position has turned out to be a major asset rather than a liability. In the case of Korea, I know some Koreans who studied languages like Thai and Malay in the previous generation. At the time their work was perceived as obscure subject for academic inquiry. Now they find that they have immense opportunities.

I find that this massive geopolitical shift is best summed up by the growth of the airline industry. When I first came to Southeast Asia in the 1970s, traveling from Bangkok to any place in China was a matter of around one or two days of travel. There were no direct flights and those flights that were available were more often than not much delayed. You had to travel through Hong Kong and there were hassles at every turn. Now, if you go to the airport in Singapore, or Hong Kong, or Bangkok, there are direct flights to just about every major city.

We see listed on the big board for departures at airports around Asia the names of cities in Southeast Asia and Central Asia, regional China and Russia, that most people had not heard of just ten years ago. It is a new landscape indeed.

For someone like me who has watched Southeast Asia develop over the last forty years, the current state is quite astonishing.

In the case of China, issues like pollution are becoming quite serious concerns. At the moment of China’s rise to global power, the number of wealthy Chinese who migrate to the United States and Canada is remarkable. They give as their reason quality of life. They cite pollution as an important factor. They simply do not want their children to grow up in a polluted environment. Of course the poor do not have such opportunities. Globalization is changing the nature of the process of development in unexpected ways. And that process is different from that of previous waves of globalization.

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