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Is Asia the key to the world’s future? Geopolitical strategist Parag Khanna thinks so.

The author and multi-time TED Talks speaker shares his nomadic experiences.

Parag Khanna rarely goes on the tourist circuit. Yet there he was last summer – a globetrotting geopolitical strategist and author who has travelled to over 100 countries – waiting among throngs of travellers on Munich’s bustling Marienplatz square for its most famous attraction, the marionette puppet show in the Glockenspiel clock tower, to begin. It was during their family vacation and his daughter, Zara, and son, Zubin, eight and six respectively, wanted to watch the spectacle. As they whiled time away at a cafe snacking on bratwurst sausages, he noticed something curious. “There was an Indian waiter wearing lederhosen and serving me beer,” he says. “Now, that’s an update.”


“There was an Indian waiter wearing lederhosen and serving me beer. Now, that’s an update.”

KHANNA, ON A SIGHT AT A MUNICH CAFE THAT LED TO HIS MANUSCRIPT CHANGE


The Singapore-based global intellectual – he has given multiple TED talks and has been an adviser on the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 programme – knew immediately this was significant. “This tells you that there is a nuance in European immigration policy. It’s not all, ‘We don’t want any immigrants.’ Because, if you’re willing to assimilate and wear lederhosen, you’re more than welcome,” says Khanna, the founder and managing partner of Futuremap, a data- and scenario-based strategic advisory firm.

Tall and strapping, the charismatic 41-year-old speaks clearly and with authority, peppering his points with personal observations. This trait has made him a popular political commentator on news channels such as CNN, BBC, CNBC and Al Jazeera.

The lederhosen-wearing Indian waiter left such a deep impression that he recalled the by-then completed manuscript of his latest book, The Future is Asian, to add the anecdote. His sixth book takes a deep dive into the premise that all of Asia, from Saudi Arabia to Japan and Russia to Australia, is set to be the world’s most important region, following centuries of European and American dominance. This book, he states, pays attention to the diversity of countries in Asia, not just China. He says: “There are five billion people in Asia and 3.5 billion of them are not Chinese. Where is their story in Asia? I don’t think you can find a book that gives a broader view.”

  • Parag Khanna with his wife Ayesha Khanna and travel writer Pico Iyer

    THE WORLD A HOME

    Khanna with pen pal and travel writer Pico Iyer (in black), his wife Ayesha, and parents in New York.

 

WELCOME TO PARAGISTAN

The countries of the Silk Road network, particularly in Central Asia, have long held a special place in Khanna’s heart. “My friends’ nickname for me is Paragistan,” he quips. “I studied Central Asian history. My most beloved backpacking trips are to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, and all of those countries that end with -stan,” says Khanna. He holds a doctorate in international relations from the London School of Economics, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in the United States.

In the past 20 years, he has returned repeatedly to the region, whether as part of the United States Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq or on adventure driving trips from Europe to China, traversing the “-stans” in between. “I’ve read books that other people have written on those same places and it’s literally bland third-hand information. There’s a technical term for it – they really suck,” he says.

He knew he could do better. After all, his work as a strategic adviser to over 25 countries, including the US, Canada, China, India and Japan, has given him the opportunity to pick the brains of government officials, diplomats and business people around the world.

Central Asia is also a key region in the China-led Belt and Road Initiative that aims to revive ancient Silk Road trade routes to stimulate modern-day commerce. He says: “My theories are built up through all of that travelling, and witnessing how each of those countries are discovering the old Silk Road routes in new ways and resurrecting the old roads through new technologies.”

Along the way, he bore witness to phenomena that counter the current popular Western-led opinion that the Belt and Road Initiative would leave a trail of countries indebted to China in its wake. Instead, many countries have an unofficial ABC, or Anything But China, policy. “For example in Kazakhstan, in certain categories of investment such as the energy grid, they will not allow the Chinese to invest in it,” he says. “They do geopolitical jujitsu. You don’t necessarily punch your opponent; it is about deflecting and steering their energy. You’d have to spend time in Asia to understand how Asians do jujitsu – it’s an Asian sport after all.”

 

THE MAKING OF A GLOBETROTTER

Born in India, Khanna has always had a nomadic existence. His parents moved to Abu Dhabi as “Persian Gulf expats” in the ’70s and lived all over the Middle East before relocating to New York in 1983. He completed high schoool in Germany and returned to the US for college. “It is practically cliched to say I’m nomadic, but it is the only thing I know in terms of my way of life,” he says.

The young Khanna found a mirror to his peripatetic upbringing in the life of British-Indian Japan-based travel writer Pico Iyer and grew up reading his works. In 2001, when Iyer released a collection of essays titled The Global Soul, Khanna was moved to pen a letter to Iyer – and doubly surprised when the author replied via snail mail. Since then, they’ve become pen pals and friends, sometimes meeting up at international book fairs or when Iyer transits at Changi Airport.

“I’m still his biggest fan,” says Khanna. “It is one of my crowning achievements when Pico asks me for my take when he travels. I think, ‘Oh my god, Pico Iyer asked me if I’ve been somewhere!’”

(RELATED: Writer Pico Iyer on searching for a shared humanity in North Korea)

 

WHERE HE GOES

He is the rare person who can honestly say he no longer has any new destinations on his bucket list. Obscure spots, too, can be significant. In his previous book Connectography, he dedicates an entire chapter to Kirkenes in north-eastern Norway. “You’ve never heard of it, no one you know has ever been there, this random frigid freezing place. But it was so important to go and to depict it as the future capital of this incredibly strategic Arctic zone where the permafrost is melting, the shipping lanes are flourishing, where trade is expanding, where submarines are criss-crossing. That’s the place to see.”

He even fancies the occasional day at the beach. Barely raising an eyebrow, he suggests Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt.

“You’ll see there are no tourists there,” he says of this resort town, which has been blighted by terrorist threats from the Muslim Brotherhood group, which opposes the government. “So when you talk to the Egyptians, you’re going to find out how more people have joined terrorist groups because they don’t have jobs. That’s an example of how a beach could be really relevant.”

There’s also the coastline in East Africa where one can witness climate change-induced coastal erosion. “These countries have very low greenhouse gas emissions but they’re near the equator where the Indian Ocean sea levels rise fastest. You’ve got American factories pumping out emissions and Chinese factories melting the Greenland ice caps, which is raising the ocean levels, which is screwing the beaches of Kenya. This is climate complexity at work.”

 

THE SINGAPORE CONNECTION

In 2012, Khanna, his wife Ayesha, an artificial intelligence expert, and their two children relocated from New York City to Singapore. The Asian-Americans had become American-Asians, a term he coined and writes about in The Future is Asian. “There is a reverse migration. Today, in this century, what you are experiencing are people who want to be American-Asians because this is where they are seeing success in the future,” he says. “Talent is coming here, from Eduardo Saverin to start-up entrepreneurs.”

(RELATED: Meet Ayesha Khanna, the Wall Street software engineer turned AI luminary)

The family, who own a home in Katong, have taken happily to life on the little red dot. When they are in town, their favourite indulgence is watching movies in Gold Class theatres. A competitive tennis player, Khanna says he has been inspired to train for a triathlon, after observing how throngs of locals spend their weekends exercising at East Coast Park.

Career-wise, from 2013 to 2018, he was a senior research fellow in the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore.

His most lavish praise is for Singapore’s brand of Asian Values 2.0, of which he identifies three main principles – mixed capitalism, technocratic governance and social conservatism. “You’ve got the most liberal Western societies today saying we need a little bit of all three. Well, guess who already does that?”

Still, he thinks the time is ripe for some “lightening up”. “You are so successful. Your people will have more faith in you rather than less, if you let them speak up more. You know, allow more release.” For instance, through his favourite Singaporean quirk, the complaint culture. “You have to appreciate that being a complainer is a pillar of being a successful democracy because it indicates that you’re dissatisfied and that you want things to be better,” he says. “For example, that Grab sucks. It is a good thing because then the regulator says, ‘Wait a minute, did we make a mistake in allowing Uber to be bought out?’, so let’s figure out how to bring it back and bring more choice to the marketplace.”

(RELATED: What the leadership looks like at Grab, now one of South-east Asia’s largest startups)

Though he may be settled into life in Singapore, Khanna is nevertheless still very much a citizen of the world. He visits his parents in New York frequently, returns to India where his extended family is for occasions like weddings, and does a lot of work in Germany. At the end of the year, the family is temporarily relocating to San Francisco. After that, it is back to Singapore where this cycle will probably start all over again. This constant travel is easy, he says. “I don’t leave places, I just change hubs.”

 

GEOPOLITICS NOW

DEVELOPMENTS IN THE REGION TO CONSIDER

Parag Khanna

Savvy businesses that have a good understanding of geopolitics could use this knowledge to grow their bottom lines. However, there is a need for head honchos to know “more than they do right now, that’s for sure”, says Parag Khanna, managing partner of data- and scenario-based advisory firm Futuremap.

In a project with Enterprise Singapore, he is identifying potential overseas investment opportunities by identifying trade patterns among all the countries in Asia. “For example, South Korea is investing more in Vietnam; the Koreans have decided that Vietnamese workers are cheaper compared to Chinese workers for everything from automobiles to flat screens and phones,” he says. “So Singapore is asking, how can we make money off that? We can go build industrial parks, finance mobile phone distribution dealerships, lots of things.”

And, while there are fears in Singapore that the Belt and Road Initiative might affect Singapore’s shipping trade, there are many more ways that businesses here are already benefiting from it. “Singapore is actually helping to invest and build special economic zones in Western China and Kazakhstan,” Khanna says. “Singapore companies like JTC, Sembcorp and Surbana are doing work there.”

A geopolitical shift can also create new opportunities. “For example, China and Malaysia have fallen out a bit because of Mahathir cancelling projects,” he says. “So China has decided that the East Coast Rail Line in Malaysia that is not going to happen, is now going to become the Eastern Economic Corridor in Thailand. Suddenly, the Belt and Road Initiative is not going to favour Malaysia as much as it’s going to favour Thailand.”

His prediction on the sectors that are set to grow: manufacturing, services, logistics, transportation and hospitality. “Thailand is a hot country for investors, both prior to the Belt and Road Initiative, and now because of it,” he says.

 

HOW PARAG KHANNA TRAVELS

THE MAN WHO HAS BEEN EVERYWHERE REVEALS HIS SECRETS TO GETTING THE MOST OUT OF A TRIP.

world map globe

GET A GOOD CONVERSATION GOING
The question I love to ask is, “Who’s the most powerful person in your country?” That never fails to strike up a great debate!

HOW TO DEFUSE A TENSE SITUATION
Always agree with the other person even if you disagree. Then, go and do whatever you want.

JUMP INTO THE THICK OF THINGS
I almost always go straight for a run after checking in. Jog for 4km to 5km and you’ll see a lot, get the lay of the land, and flag things to revisit later.

SNIFF OUT THE BEST LOCAL HANG-OUT
Walk down a dark alley and listen for music and chatter. You’ve found it!

TRAVEL LIGHT
Never check in luggage. I always have a flashlight, universal power adaptor and thermos for hot tea.

HAVE A PLAN B
I always have a backup plan for storms, volcano eruptions or terrorist attacks. There’s always another place to stay, or way to get to where you’re going. Keep it in the back of your mind and deploy if needed.

 

POWER IN ASIA’S TECH ENGINE

BREATHTAKING STRIDES ARE BEING MADE IN THIS PART OF THE WORLD AND U.S. COMPANIES ARE TAKING NOTICE.

EXCERPT FROM THE FUTURE IS ASIAN

The history of technology flowing from Asia to the West is a reminder that science and technology don’t belong to anyone. Western narratives have long derided Asian cultures as being merely copycats. But innovation is not just about scientific invention but about societal adaptation. Whether Asia is just catching up (as in life expectancy and nutrition) or racing ahead (as in mobile finance), it is adopting the latest technologies such as robotics, sensor networks, and synthetic biology.

From blockchain to gene editing, success and advantage won’t be determined by who is rich or poor, democratic or nondemocratic, but rather who best scales new technologies and business models. As every society in the world faces varying degrees of technological disruption, one crucial factor Asians have in their favor is psychological: they are not afraid of new technology.

They think of it not as a master but a service. Since the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s rulers have been fascinated with technology, and today the Japanese are far ahead of other societies in human coexistence with robots in the home and workplace. For Japanese, robots connote the cuddly Astro Boy, not the destructive Terminator. From sensors embedded everywhere to bioenhancement, Asians are investing in the future without fearing that it will destroy them.

Asia’s accelerating R&D spending is translating both into home market dominance as well as success abroad. China has ramped up its R&D spending to a level commensurate with its GDP size, contributing 20 per cent of world R&D spending and accounting for a similar percentage of the global number of scientific researchers and publications. China represents about half of Asia’s R&D expenditure by volume at $409 billion, with Japan at $190 billion and Korea at $120 billion, followed by India at $67 billion and Russia at $43 billion.

Three of the world’s top 10 patent-filing hubs – Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya – are in Japan, ahead of Shenzhen and San Jose. Korea’s bandwidth speeds are so fast that the country is effectively a cloudfirst nation. And by mandating that download and upload speeds be equally fast (rather than privileging download), South Korea has become a nation not just of cultural consumers but of producers, with content spread and adapted across Asian language markets.

Seoul, Taipei, Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai and Shenzhen rank among the world’s most high-tech cities. Each major Asian tech hub has a niche edge emerging from its ecosystems: Tel Aviv excels in cybersecurity, Singapore in fintech, Tokyo in robotics, Shenzhen in sensors, and so forth. Other places such as Dubai aren’t scientific pioneers but make themselves regulatory test beds for everything from drones to driverless cars.

(RELATED: Fintech’s the future, says Kayoko Francis, founder of Finesse)

Asia’s cities lead the world in the deployment of sensor networks for the urban Internet of Things, lifting Korea’s semiconductor exports 55 per cent from 2016 to 2017. Now such sensor networks as well as energy-efficient LED lights are being installed in second-tier areas such as India’s Bhopal. In China’s Yinchuan, trash bins double as compactors run by solar power, with sensors alerting trash collectors when to empty them.

Asia is also the site of important experiments in optimising cities by size. Where cities have become too large and congested, such as Changsha, the government has attempted to motivate people to shift to second-tier cities to distribute the population better. Now, instead of just four cities representing nearly half the country’s middle class – as was the case with Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen in 2002 – by 2020, inland China is expected to be home to 40 per cent of the country’s middle class.

Given the density of Asian cities, last- mile bike sharing and autonomous vehicles are other areas in which Asians are making strategic investments to navigate around the traditional path of universal vehicle ownership and crippling traffic congestion. Bike stations and dockless biking have been pioneered by companies such as Mobike and Ofo, which have spread from China across Asia and into Europe. As Asian cities prepare for driverless cars and buses on their street, policy makers, regulators, urban planners, and insurance companies are developing new frameworks to govern them. Even the Western firms ranked most likely to get self-driving cars onto the road first – including Ford, Renault, Daimler, Volkswagen, and BMW – will be looking to do so in Asia.

In South Korea, Hyundai and Kia have partnered with Cisco Systems and other US IT companies to advance connected car communications. Baidu’s open-source approach to driverless-car software development, called Apollo, has lured Intel, Daimler, and Ford to contribute resources. Baidu might be on a collision course with Didi Chuxing – or perhaps it will simply buy it. US firms are now copying Chinese innovations. LimeBike in California is copying China’s dockless bike sharing as pioneered by Ofo and Mobike. Didi has algorithms that predict which ride-sharing users will want a ride at certain times and locations and is designing driverless car interiors for shared augmented-reality experiences – programs that Uber and others will surely copy.

Apple is conducting payments through the iMessage chat service, following what Tencent has done. Amazon now has a lending service similar to that of Alibaba. Facebook plans to follow WeChat by becoming a complete ecosystem of digital services. These examples demonstrate that the winners of a perceived competition between US and Chinese tech companies to innovate and compete for Asian markets are first and foremost Asians themselves.

Even in capital-intensive arenas such as particle physics and quantum computing, the combination of China’s appropriation of US technology, luring Chinese American talent from Silicon Valley, and thriving enterprise culture have collectively driven Chinese innovation. Autonomous vehicles, energy-efficient power grids, and urban surveillance systems all rest on breakthroughs in AI such as neutral networks, which Asians have developed at least a year ahead of their Western counterparts.

(RELATED: Don’t call me Mrs Rogers: Gemologist Paige Parker tells all about her epic road trip  with investment guru Jim Rogers)

The Future is Asian: Global Order in the Twenty-first Century by Parag Khanna is available in major bookstores and from Amazon.