Asia: What’s in a name?

Posted on | maart 30, 2011 | No Comments

One of the first things I was required to do upon recently taking over as Director for the Center of Asian Democracy at the University of Louisville was to define the organization’s goals and the strategy. This naturally entailed defining the geographical scope of Asia for the purview of the Center. Such a task however is not as easy as it might first look.

Consider the myriad of ways in which we currently conceptualize Asia in today’s world. By way of illustration I selected a number of famous newspapers from around the world to see how they dealt with. In Britain the BBC News website divides World news into the ‘Asia-Pacific’ and South Asia. The left-leaning newspaper The Guardian prefers South & Central Asia on the one hand and Asia-Pacific on the other. The Telegraph curiously divides this region into: Asia, China, Central Asia and Australasia; The Times of London into Asia and Afghanistan(!) In the United States The New York Times prefers an all-inclusive Asia-Pacific; as does The Washington Post; while the Wall Street Journal also chooses and inclusive ‘Asia’ tab but supplements this with separate tags for China, Hong Kong, India and Japan. Finally the Los Angeles Times goes with Asia while creating a separate category for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The final five choices in my far from scientific survey of the world’s press are the French newspaper Le Monde, The Times of India, The South China Morning Post, The Times of South Africa and The Australian. Here there is even less agreement. While the French opt for the all-inclusive ‘Asia-Pacifique’, the others for the most part bracket news on Asia as ‘World News’. For the Times of India news is divided into Pakistan, South Asia, China and the Rest of the World(!); Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post naturally considers Hong Kong news and news from China as being distinct with the rest of Asia lumped together in ‘Asia and the World’; the Times of South Africa distinguishes between Africa and the World while for The Australian there appears only to be national news and world news!

The point of the exercise above is to demonstrate that the process of identifying and determining what constitutes a region and who comprises it are far from simply an exercise in geography and instead a discursive exercise that is shaped by cultural, economic and strategic factors. Geographically Asia itself is somewhat artificial since the term Eurasia (Europe plus Asia) is a more accurate depiction of the landmass that stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Nevertheless Asia is widely recognized among geographers as comprising the area east of the Ural mountain chain in Russia, south of the Caucasus Mountains, bounded by the Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans. Nonetheless few today would include the states of the Middle East (or Western Asia) as comprising part of what is commonly regarded as Asia.

For much of the 19th and early 20th Century how we defined regions and areas of the world was a by-product of European colonialism and European conceptions of their own enlightened superiority and ‘divine’ mission to raise up the non-White peoples of the world. Thus much of the world was demarcated from a European perspective. Today’s Middle East was known first as the Levant (Latin for East) and then as the Near East so as to distinguish it from the Far East. Asia itself was largely defined by the colonial power that exercised political power or dominant influence. Thus terms such as Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia were largely absent. Instead peninsular Southeast Asia was defined as Indochina by the French while the Malay world was artificially divided between the British territories on the peninsular and the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia). The former was itself divided between The Straits Settlements, the Federated States of Malaya and the Unfederated States of Malaya. Of these The Straits Settlements were administered until 1867 by the infamous East India Company. The Philippines, a Spanish colony until 1898, were administered from Mexico from 1565 to 1821 as part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and following Mexican independence in 1821 directly from Madrid. Thus for over 300 years The Philippines looked to its East, to the Americas and Europe rather than to its neighbors in Asia.

Today’s demarcation of Asia into Central, Northeast, Southeast, South and Southwest is similarly more of a reflection of the changes in the geopolitical environment than as a result of Asians themselves. Of these Southeast Asia emerged first during the Second World War following the creation by Winston Churchill in 1943 of Southeastern Asia Command (SEAC). Initially the area of operations for SEAC included India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Malaya and the Indonesian island of Sumatra with offensive operations in Thailand (Siam) and French Indochina. At the end of the war SEAC’s operational area was extended to include the Dutch East Indies and Indochina. The continuation of the use of the term Southeast Asia after the Second World War initially has much to do with the Vietnam War and of the United States global battle to contain the spread of communism. As part of its efforts to do this the United States attempted to form a regional equivalent to NATO. The Southeast Asian Treaty Organization was thus formed in 1954 comprising Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and New Zealand, and Pakistan. (What is interesting to note about SEATO was not just that is was largely a failure but that its membership only comprised three actual Asian states, the remaining five were ‘Western’).

Similarly Northeast Asia was largely defined both by ‘not’ being Southeast Asia but also because of its geo-strategic importance. Comprising Japan, Hong Kong, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan Northeast Asia comprised front-line states in the struggle against communism during the Cold War. Following the Korean War (1950-53) the United States afforded enormous strategic importance to the remaining ‘free’ countries of Northeastern Asia and encouraged and assisted these countries in their economic development. As the 1970s and 1980s progressed these countries became the famous Asian tigers whose developmental performance became a model for the developing world.

Finally the term Asia-Pacific is relatively new emerging in the late 1980s to reflect the growing economic importance of East Asia and its trading links with North America and Australasia. Estimates suggest that this ‘new’ region accounts for some 40 per cent of the world’s population, approximately 60 per cent of world GDP and 44 per cent of world trade. While APEC has its origin in the Japanese sponsored Pacific Trade and Development forum and the Pacific Basin Economic Council, both founded in 1968, it was not until two decades that such energies developed significant momentum. This momentum would culminate in the creation of APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) in 1989 which would evolve into a 21 nation economic and trade body encompassed Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, North America, Mexico, Peru and Chile as well as Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. With China (re)emergence as a major global economic power and greater regional integration among Southeast Asian nations some within Asia have called for new forms of regional organization that, reflecting this dynamic, would exclude the United States and its allies in Australasia.

To conclude where is Asia is as much determined by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than it is by any nominally neutral and abstract expression of geography. Instead what is Asia will undoubtedly continue to be determined by the broader cultural, economic, social, political and strategic realities of the 21st Century.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


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