Trapping Asia into a cliché

It may seem strange writing this for a publication with “Asia” in its name, and having just written a book with “Asia” in the title Empire of the Winds: The Global Role of Asia’s Great Archipelago. But it is long past time that authors ceased to churn out books about The Asian Century, Asia Rising, Asian Age, Asia on Top etc etc.

The notion of Asia as a single place may have had some relevance as being non-western or, more specifically, the western part of the great Eurasian continent, which was imposing itself on the rest of Eurasia as well as Africa and the Americas, and adding skin-color divides to the more normal ones of religion, language and economic interest.

But this Asia, this non-Europe, is no more or less “rising” now than it was 120 years ago when Japan defeated the empire of the Europe-based Russian empire, or in 1942 when Japan overran European imperialism in east Asia, or in the 1960-1990 period when growth of the east Asian (ex-China) economies out-ran the world by a long way.

For the past 25 years it has been China’s turn to shine but there is nothing inevitable about that continuing, let alone that it translates into some Asia-wide phenomenon. Claiming to be “Asian” is almost invariably selective both from a geographical and developmental viewpoint. Thus Saudi Arabia, despite its wealth, is seldom if ever cited as an example of Asian progress. More often it is cited for attempting to spread medieval desert religious notions on countries as dissimilar as Mauritania is to Indonesia.

The very concept of Asia began with Europeans (ancient Greeks) in reference to what is now mostly Turkey. Its spread eastward was very gradual and only acknowledged by these “Asians” themselves in the latter years of European colonialism. In many instances its usage is less than a century old. The term “Southeast Asia” only dates to the 1940s to encompass various other European usages – Indo-China, the Malay Peninsula, Malay Archipelago, Dutch East Indies, etc.

Post 1945, the more these countries differed in development, religion or politics, the more they became subsumed into “Asia” even though the Indian sub-continent was as at least as different from China as it was from Europe. Thus it is absurd to characterize any situation today as one between Asia and West or the US and Asia.

People who talk and write about “Asia” in geopolitical terms seldom apply the word with any consistency and are mostly selective. Countries with “Asian” immigrants have differing definitions. Thus in Britain “Asians” invariably means people with family backgrounds from the Indian sub-continent, while those of Chinese, Vietnamese or other ancestry are separately designated. In the US, the opposite tends to be true, if and when Americans think of Asia at all. Though south and east Asians are officially “Asian,” in practice Asian usually means east/southeast Asian – with or without Filipinos.

As for the two great countries of “west Asia,” Turkey and Iran, they seldom count as Asian at all in most considerations of Asia. Whether this is because their skin is mostly white, or they are closest to Europe and farthest from Japan, or are defined by religion more than geography, is debatable. What is not is that they have ancient linages and 30 years from now may be at least as advanced as China and again having closer relations with the countries of central Eurasia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan etc) than China or Russia. Will that be an “Asian” triumph? As for India, it (not China) by then re-assume an earlier role as the main trade partner of people of the islands and costs east of the Andaman sea.

In short, the multipolar world is too diverse for Asia to be more than an expression of geography, the major part of Eurasia.

The Global Role of Asia’s Great Archipelago, a history of the Asian archipelago, to be published in January.