Does Asia exist?

Apr 9th 2008


A new book suggests we are witnessing its creation

SAD to say, this column suffers occasional pangs of existential doubt. Is there really such a place as “Asia”? Of course there is, if you look at a map—though even there, definitions differ.

Does it include Australasia? How about what Europeans call “the Middle East”, known to South Asians and the United Nations as “West Asia”?

The Economist answers those questions “yes” and “no”, respectively. For us, Asia is everywhere east of Iran, including Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands (which in theory means we should call the six “stans”, more normally known as “Central Asia”, “West Asia”. But let it pass).

The more fundamental issue, though, is whether Asia is anything more than a handy cartographical term. Has it outgrown its ancient Greek origins, when it was used to mean everywhere east of that country? Should this column really be called Eastofgreece.view?

This is a long-running debate. In 1995, when he was foreign minister, Malaysia’s prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, was asked at a press conference whether Australia was part of Asia (as its government at the time very much wanted to be). “No”, he chided his Australian questioner, “look at a map.” He then used his arms to explain that Australia was way down there and Asia “up here”.

What he really seemed to mean was that Australia was largely inhabited by people of European descent. Look not at a map, but in the mirror. But an ethnic definition does not work either, since Asia is so diverse in that respect too.

This latest bout of questioning from Asia.view is inspired by a new book, “Rivals”, by Bill Emmott (who edited The Economist until 2006), which offers some timely reassurance.

The main theme of “Rivals” is explained in its subtitle: “How the power struggle between China, India and Japan will shape our next decade.” But before exploring the emerging relationship between Asia’s three giants, Mr Emmott argues that Asia is undergoing its “deepest and most extensive integration” ever (or at least since Genghis Khan’s time, which saw integration of a rather different sort). Indeed, we are witnessing “the very creation of Asia”.

That, as you can imagine, is a relief. Our doubts are misplaced if understandable. This is a column ahead of its time.

Before this column pats itself on its virtual back, however, it ought to examine some of the counter-arguments that Mr Emmott ably presents. Asia has been, as he notes, “not so much a continent as an array of subcontinents, or subregions, dotted across thousands of miles of ocean and land”.

The world’s highest mountain range separates two ancient civilisations: India and China. Languages on the Indian side are part of the “Indo-European” family rather than the “Sino-Tibetan” tongues of East Asia.

Buddhism spread from India all the way to Japan, but remains dominant only in smaller Asian countries: Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Laos. If religion defines Asia at all, Mr Emmott notes, it is more by tolerance than doctrine. “That is an admirable characteristic,” he says, “but it is not a unifying one.”

Mr Emmott argues that two forces are drawing today’s Asia together: a rapid economic integration, under which half the region’s merchandise exports go to other Asian countries; and an inchoate institutional process, notably through the “East Asia Summit”, which brings together India, Australia, New Zealand as well as the ten South-East Asian countries, China, Japan and South Korea.

One could question both parts of this. Some of the intra-regional trade is accounted for by parts of an export supply-chain generated by the West. And the East Asia Summit has done little more than meet. But why would Asia.view shoot itself in the foot?