By Nathan Weber
When economists, government officials and academics refer to the current age as the evolving “Asian century,” expected to replace the American century within a generation or two (just as the United States replaced the earlier British century), they usually refer only to China.
They point largely to China’s population growth, burgeoning military might and leap-frogging economy. One investment bank, Lehman Bros., even predicted recently that by 2010, China’s economy will rise from sixth place to third, after the United States and Japan. And in about 20 years, Lehman suggested, it will gain second-place status.
But Asia, of course, includes countries other than China. And when South Asian nations are added to the mix, the notion of an Asian century takes on far more substantial dimensions.
One window onto the emergence of this developing regional powerhouse is textiles, in particular, exports of non-apparel textiles to the world’s largest market, the United States.
In 2007, the 10 textiles-producing nations of the region shipped nearly $15.6 billion worth of the commodity to the United States. That comprised more than two-thirds of what the United States took in from the entire world. And while China alone accounted for 43 percent of that sum, the other nine countries got the rest of it, or 26 percent. That is notable since those countries include Thailand and Vietnam, nations hardly considered international powers by any standard.
India and Pakistan, as the leading nations of South Asia, together accounted for 16 percent of the commodity’s exports to the United States last year. That means the three leading countries of the full region now command well over half the textiles goods the United States imports—excluding apparel.
India’s textiles industry, its second-largest employer after agriculture, today accounts for almost 30 percent of that nation’s total exports, according to economywatch.com. And in Pakistan, the textiles industry reportedly comprises more than 60 percent of its total exports, that is, double India’s ratio. Textiles, in fact, probably account for around 46 percent of Pakistan’s total economic output. This fact becomes even more telling in light of Pakistan’s crippling, decades-long conflicts with India, not to mention its participation in the war against elements within neighboring Afghanistan.
While both manufacturers and labor organizations in the United States point to globalism—by which they mean the drastic loosening of trade tariffs, along with foreign government subsidies to the region’s textiles industries—as a major cause of America’s outflow of textiles jobs, the view from Asia/South Asia is obviously upbeat. “The elimination of quota restriction will open the way for the most competitive developing countries to develop stronger clusters of textiles expertise,” said the economywatch.com report, “enabling them to handle all stages of the production chain from growing natural fibers to producing finished clothing.”
To the extent that this trend gathers steam, the Asian century, at least so far as textiles are concerned, may be upon us sooner than we know.