The history of Asia is really the history of civilizations.
During the Bronze Age, the Indus Valley Civilization in the western part of the Indian subcontinent gave birth to one of the world's great religions, Hinduism.
From the sixth to the fourth centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Persian Empire extended from Greece to Central Asia. This coincided with the growing popularity of the first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism.
Next in western Asia came the Greek invader Alexander the Great, whose empire reached what is now the northwestern Indian state of Punjab. That was followed by the emergence of a second Persian Empire.
Centuries later, the Prophet Muhammed unified the Arab Peninsula. His followers expanded the great religion he founded, Islam, all the way to India, parts of China, and Southeast Asia.
The Mongol Empire, led for 21 years by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, united nomadic tribes in Northeast Asia and conquered much of China and Central Asia.
Three centuries later, leaders of the Mogul Empire claimed direct lineage to Genghis Khan and were also linked to the Persian Empire through marriage. They took over much of the Indian subcontinent in the 16th century, establishing their first capital in Agra in northern India. The city is most famous today as home to the Taj Mahal.
The Moguls' efforts to convert people to Islam fuelled a backlash among Hindus and Sikhs. That led to the creation of the Khalsa, which was a Sikh military order founded in 1699, to oppose the forced conversions.
Meanwhile, other long-lasting dynasties governed much of China for millennia, with rulers at times extending their reach into the South China Sea, to the island of Taiwan, and into northern Vietnam.
The Han Dynasty traded with the Persian Empire along the Silk Road; under the Ming dynasty, China's population grew sharply with the introduction of crops from the New World.
The final dynasty in China, the Qing from Manchuria, were ultimately humiliated into signing treaties with western imperial powers in the 19th century.
This curtailed China's legal right to prosecute foreigners in certain areas of the country—an insult that is remembered in China to this day.
Asia rises again in 21st century
Indian-born, New York–raised, and Singapore-based author Parag Khanna has paid close attention to this arc of history.
And in his latest book, The Future Is Asian: Commerce, Conflict and Culture in the 21st Century, the founder and managing partner of the advisory firm FutureMap makes the case that Asia is once again reasserting itself as the world's dominant centre of power.
According to him, this is been driven by several factors coming together at the same time.
"You have this huge demographic expansion," Khanna told the Straight by phone in advance of a May 25 appearance at an Indian Summer Festival fundraiser in Vancouver. "You've got massive urbanization and economic growth. You have industrialization and adoption of technology.
"You have transportation," he continued. "You have the expansion of capitalism and markets to make Asia the trading economic centre of the world."
He argued that a similar phenomenon occurred in the 19th century with the Europeanization of the world. European countries extended their influence through colonization to Asia, Africa, South America, and North America.
The 20th century saw the rise of America as the major power with the most dominant economy, military, and intelligence agencies.
"You have a natural, almost evolutionary process, where major regions of the world have their moments where the stars align," Khanna said. "And that moment is not just a moment. It stretches on for decades in the case of America, or centuries, literally, where you have this confluence of factors."
The author of The Future Is Asian emphasized that this is not a zero-sum game.
In fact, he stated, the European Union remains a strong bloc in the world even after countries like China and India have re-emerged as global powerhouses.
He suggested that there's no reason for people to assume that the rise of Asia will result in the downfall of the U.S., either.
"I'm not a declinist about America," Khanna declared. "I'm not a declinist about Europe. I'm saying that we really have a truly global coexistence of superpower regions and never in history has this happened."
He also said it's a mistake to graft the history of Europe in the 19th century or America in the 20th century onto predictions about what might happen in Asia in the 21st century.
That's because Asia is geographically so vast—creating room for multiple civilizations to thrive and prosper.
That was never possible in areas with the population and size of continental Europe or the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries.
"It's really not helpful when scholars, even knowledgeable people, lead by analogy to irrelevant periods in history," Khanna said. "It's not helpful to the people of today to understand the world if even some of the greatest minds—people who I admire—can't look further back than 100 years to determine what template they want to use to understand the future. It's really quite harmful."
He also has a more nuanced view of colonialism than many historians, suggesting that European imperial powers "gave a head start to many societies of Asia".
A notable exception, he added, was the partition of India and Pakistan, which he thinks was a mistake.
In addition, Khanna said that the American alliance helped South Korea and Japan achieve stability, which helped them blossom in the latter part of the 20th century.
He also categorically rejected the notion that one country, whether it's India or China or anyone else, will dominate the entire continent in this century.
"That's simply false in Asia and in Asian history," he stated. "The history of Asia is the Asia of many great civilizations simultaneously coexisting—India and China among them. So again, this is not France and Germany."
Conflict doesn't negate Khanna's arguments
At the same time, Khanna recognizes that conflicts and wars can occur along the path to building continental power.
That occurred in Europe in the 20th century on the way to the formation of the European Union. He doesn't discount the possibility of this occurring in Asia in the current century.
Khanna said that he has identified nine "major conflicts" that could erupt on the continent.
To cite one, he mentioned longstanding tensions between India and Pakistan.
At the same time, he noted that it's "unbelievably inefficient for today's generation to be fighting the wars of four generations ago", referring to the history of warfare between these two nation states.
"So, I don't shy away from conflict as something that invalidates my argument," Khanna said. "In fact, there is a very cruel section of the book where I say, 'Look, war can be good for regional integration.' That's what Europe proves."
He acknowledged that publishers in some countries wanted to add a question mark to his book title, i.e. The Future Is Asian?, but he adamantly refused to allow this.
"In fact, I was actually thinking of calling the book The Present Is Asia because in so many ways, we are already in the Asian century," Khanna stated. "Quite frankly, this is not something that is subject to debate."