Think Tank
A New Hope or a Return to Ex Oriente Lux

The successes of Asian countries in the fight against the pandemic have given a lot of enthusiasm to both governments and citizens. And this inspiration, a sense of self-confidence, will definitely bear fruit, principally in the form of growing independence, writes Valdai Club Chairman Andrey Bystritskiy ahead of the Club’s 11th Asian Conference.

The old saying “light comes from the east” has gained a new sense of relevance. The point is not only that Asian economies are developing remarkably fast, but also that in the East, the features of the future world and social order are becoming more apparent. The pandemic, for all its devilry, only emphasises both the new opportunities of the Asian countries and the new challenges they face. In point of fact, this is what the 11th Valdai Club Asian Conference is dedicated to.

The pandemic, as such, brought nothing new, except for infection and suffering. But it, of course, only exacerbated and accelerated the trends that were observed before it.

One of these trends is the rapid development of Asia. Strikingly, Asia as a whole, and its individual countries in particular, have turned out to be much more stable and tenacious in fighting Covid than the West, which seemed to be leading in many respects. It is enough to look at the indicators of morbidity and mortality from the epidemic in different countries, and compare them with each other to be sure of this.

Many attribute this to the supposedly inherent tendency of Asians to embrace masks and social discipline. However, this is hardly a sufficient explanation.

In my opinion, it is more significant that the population of many Asian countries has shown the ability to consolidate and demonstrate a social harmony in difficult times, and their elites have demonstrated responsibility and humane behaviour.

Moreover, one can observe the ability to change the model of socio-economic development. Probably, this ability existed before, but the pandemic forced many countries to act faster and take advantage of critical situations amid drastic changes. 

Thailand, for example, announced a change in its approach to tourism. And this should not be considered as some minor aspect. It is a completely radical transformation of the national economy and even national self-awareness. The rejection of mass tourism at such symbolic Thai resorts as Pattaya, that is, a move away from cheap and loose recreation characterised by a cocktail of drugs and accessible sex, means that the Thai society has begun to look at itself in a new way. In my opinion, it can be more accurately said that it found the strength for this. And the basis of this power is a growing economy that can provide employment in addition to satisfying the perverse desires of elderly European tourists. There is also a growing new self-identity, the realisation that a Thai is in him or herself no worse than any other person. On the whole, of course, this is a natural continuation of anti-colonialism.

Singapore’s story is no less impressive, having managed to build an amazing, multicultural society that speaks four official languages with two dozen more used by the population. The successful coexistence of diverse ethnic groups within a unifying identity has greatly helped in the city-state’s successful fight against the coronavirus. But Singapore is the largest port and in general, in a sense, a kind of centre of Asia. And in this centre, at the time of this writing, only 29 people out of 58 thousand infected have died from Covid-19. Almost everyone else has recovered and their lives will come to an end — when the time comes — for some other reason.

By the way, the pandemic, in theory, should open our eyes to new social entities emerging in Asia. They are not all similar, for example, to the Western social order. But they — and the pandemic emphasised this — have demonstrated their understanding of social justice, human rights, freedom and equality, and the management of social processes. New types of sociality, such as those in Singapore, South Korea or Vietnam, deserve the closest scrutiny, because they find original ways to combine historical habits and new innovation, democracy and traditional hierarchies, national identity and a sense of belonging to a large and open world. To be sure, there is no implicit confrontation with Western models of society. These are just new ways of realising basic human needs, including social, spiritual, material and practical ones. However, it makes no sense to use Maslow’s pyramid here (incidentally, they say, he  did not draw it himself).

In general, the successes of Asian countries in the fight against the pandemic have given a lot of enthusiasm to both governments and citizens. And this inspiration, a sense of self-confidence, will definitely bear fruit, principally in the form of growing independence.

Here we are talking not only, and not even so much about China, but about the entire region, which will increasingly rely on itself. I have already written that we must learn to somehow live without the United States. The point is not that the United States possesses some qualities or invites a negative attitude towards it. The United States will certainly play a large role in the world. The point is not in the United States at all, but in other countries, which have realised that they themselves can conclude any alliances, create coalitions, and resolve economic, social and even military issues.

The pandemic has shown that countries can ultimately rely only on themselves and on those partners with whom they have established good working relations. Moreover, the pandemic has shown insufficient justification for the unconditional leadership of the Western countries.

And this means that Asian countries will create a new world in the vast Asia-Pacific region, in countries connected by the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and this is practically the whole world. In the new world’s configurations there is a place for Russia, China, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and, in general, everyone who wants and will be able to cooperate, including, incidentally, the United States.

Of course, the road to a truly multilateral peace is not easy. There are many obstacles. One of the main ones is the new information and communication-based world that humanity has built. De facto, a new virtual reality has emerged, in which humanity lives in parallel with the traditional world. Like anything that offers amazing opportunities, the new information and communication environment also carries dire threats. Doubtful information, conscious and unconscious distortions of reality, the manipulation of opinion and much more are on the list of these threats. Consequently, this environment requires regulation – not unlike nuclear weapons in the 20th century. Nuclear energy has brought many benefits, but, in the form of bombs and missiles, it contains an obvious and deadly threat.

Global Governance
Programme of the 11th Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club ‘Russia and Asia After the Pandemic’
The global coronavirus pandemic did not change the nature of international relations, but it relegated to history many of the things that seemed self-evident only a year ago, and, at the same time, it opened up new opportunities.

Club events

It is curious that Asia is, in a sense, ahead of everyone. Communication problems are clearly recognised in the region, and countries are trying to find any acceptable solutions. No doubt, the approaches are different, and the main challenge is how to find a balance between the freedom to disseminate information and responsibility, the speed of delivery of information, and its reliability. These are not all problems.

Perhaps, we do not realise how soon and how much the world will change. But if you look closely at modern Asia, then some features of the supposed future can be distinguished. And again, one cannot but recall the words of the great Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov:

“Which East do you want to be, the East of Xerxes or of Christ?” (1890).