The Myth of a Single Asia: Part 3

Last in a three-part series on the use and abuse of the word “Asia”

Philip Bowring, Asia Sentinel’s co-founder and consulting editor, recently redefined maritime Austronesia into its own distinct region, known as Nusantaria, in his prize-winning book, Empire of the Winds. Now he takes on a bigger task. In a three-part series he looks at the usage and abusage of the word “Asia,” its origins, history and why it means different things to different people. In the process it hides the diversity of civilizations into a catch-all which is demeaning and leads to untenable generalizations such as "Asian values" and "the Asian century.

Division of Eurasia into two however unequal halves, might be easier if the world could be split between eastern and western religions. The latter – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have a single Semitic root. But their presence farther east provides fault lines which are now hard to manage. They split a united India into three and divide the wider Malay world into two, Muslim and Christian. Sometimes the Holy Book-based dogmatism of the Semitic religions may seem at odds with Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist ways of thinking. Likewise, there is sometimes a perceived gulf between the neo-Confucian traditions of China, Korea and Japan with their emphasis on order and some others. According to Amartya Sen’s “The Argumentative Indian,” India’s somewhat chaotic democracy is linked to a passion for difference and debate. As for Russia and Central Asia the earlier, undogmatic Tengrist and other steppe beliefs may have modified both Islam and the Soviet atheist legacy. 

A more obvious fault-line is race in the sense of physical appearance and skin color. For long it was possible to ignore this in Asia and focus on western racist ideas which added to the pain of the colonized non-white peoples and underwrote slavery and its aftermath in the US. However, while post-colonial western countries have made some progress in integrating the domestic non-white populations which have grown dramatically in the past fifty years, there is growing awareness of fault lines within Asia. 

Chinese and Koreans have long had an obsession about keeping their skins as white as possible. A traditional tendency to look down on browner skins has perhaps in recent years been exacerbated by the economic success of these people relative to people with darker skin, whether from India or Indonesia. Treatment of domestic helpers from Indonesia and the Philippines in Singapore, Hongkong, Taiwan and elsewhere is an example.

A very obvious racial dividing line is seen in Myanmar where the Rohingya are perceived as foreign partly because of their dark skin and non-oriental features compared with most other Myanmar people, whether Bamar or minorities. Here the divides between relatively light and dark skins and between oriental and south Asian facial features are both striking. Ethnicity at least as much as Islam defines the Myanmar/Rohingya issue.

Divides in Asia there may be, but is there an “Asian way” or “Asian values” which are distinct from those of the west? That was a popular theme in some quarters around the turn of the century, particularly propagated by Singapore – If mainly as a cover for suppressing dissent and social values disliked by the ruling patriarch, Lee Kuan Yew. Virtues included communal as opposed to individualistic spirit, disciple rather than “excess” freedom, family orientation, the importance of education and savings. These were essentially neo-Confucian values as evidenced in the economically successful peoples of northeast Asia. They were not evident in the west, whether in dynamic parts such as the US or declining ones.

Even assuming the truth of these relative virtues, it is hard to find a common denominator which extends beyond that region. Even within it, the importance of family can no longer be claimed given that this whole region suffers from the world’s lowest marriage and fertility rates as focus on material pursuits have become paramount while old patriarchal assumptions also still prevail.

Elsewhere in Asia situations vary enormously, even within one country, if comparing, say the social and demographic statistics of India’s Tamil Nadu and Kerala with Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Social and economic variations within India are at least as great as those across the multi-nation European Union, let alone in comparison with, for example, Korea, Kazakhstan or Saudi Arabia.

Despite much talk of “the Asian way” and “Asian values,” modern Asian states have found inspiration in western ideas, be they the Marxism-Leninism, which China borrowed from the Soviet Union, or the capitalistic liberal democracy promoted by the US. Even India once looked to the Soviets’ economic model. “Asian values” actually vary very widely but can be proclaimed as a reaction against some aspect of current western mores. But the more economically advanced of these countries have mostly gradually followed new western norms, such as acceptance of same-sex unions, even in Singapore, and enabling gay marriage in Taiwan.

Even accepting that Asia is still a viable geographical concept for many practical purposes, assumptions about an “Asian century” are huge leaps. Much is said of past Asian growth leadership in the past few decades but this is usually a reference to certain growth stories – Japan, Korea, China, Thailand etc. – while other significant economies such as Iran, the Philippines and Myanmar have languished or relied heavily on population not productivity growth.

To claim “The Future is Asian” is meaningless if one considers that Japan and South Korea may already be well past their peak while Bangladesh may yet excel while Pakistan becomes the “basket case” status once occupied by Bangladesh. The future may well lie with one part of Asia. But which?

Even by lumping all Asia together as a counterpoint to other continents, its days as would-be global leader may be shorter than assumed. In absolute terms, its sheer size should be enough. Including everywhere (minus Russia) from Yemen to Japan, Turkey to Papua New Guinea has about 60 percent of the world’s population and excellence in many fields of technology. 

Some part of it will likely be the region of the future, but which? East Asia’s leaders in growth and technology now face dramatic demographic decline. It is now quite likely that, at least in terms of economic growth, the Asian average will before long be overtaken by Africa, with its faster rising population and scope for catch-up development. By 2050 Africa’s population is forecast to reach 25 percent of the global total compared to 16 percent now, while Asia’s share will have fallen from 60 percent to 55 percent and will likely keep falling for at least two more generations. So even taken as a single mass, Asia’s pre-eminence is not assured.

Commentary on Asia has focused on the spectacular success of certain parts of it. One can be sure that the future will also be very diverse – to the point that generalized reference to Asia will be meaningless and eventually ignored. That should have happened already, but notions are slow to adjust, and new words are hard to find. The name Asia is so deeply entrenched that it will last a long time. 

But that is no reason to perpetuate the myth that it is anything more than an organizational convenience with roots in Europe’s view of the world. The cultures of Asia are too rich, too diverse to be placed under this single, Europe-made roof. As each major part of geographical Asia gradually becomes more important relative to Europe and its American offspring, so will the term Asia become ever more meaningless. It has no long-term future in a multi-polar world where bonds are forged by common political, cultural and economic interests not a concept derived from geography but with multiple interpretations.

Instead, it seems time to embed new names that focus on specifics within the great northern landmass between the Pacific and Atlantic, preferably with names with meaningful definitions in political, social or cultural terms. This is not a revolutionary idea. It is merely a correction to the over-use and mis-use of the word Asia over the past century.

Eurasia is several sub-continents and it is time to acknowledge that with defining words. Place names emerge in unpredictable ways – America being a prime example. But whatever one calls the subcontinents – Europa, Gondwana, Amara, Confuciana, Nusantaria, etc, -- greater precision is needed by “Asians” themselves as well as by westerners wishing to define their own place in the world.