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Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 11:06 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 11:06 | SYDNEY

Does 'Asia' exist?

In a really interesting response to my keynote to the Universities Australia conference this month, Melbourne University Professor Antonia Finnane asked an important question: does 'Asia' really exist? She writes: 'Historically, Asia has served as a catch-all phrase for societies that were literate but not Christian: hence its application to places from Turkey in the west to the Philippines in the east. It may be approaching its use-by date.'

There is no question that the earth's largest continent is home to a greater variety of cultures, languages and religions than any other. Expecting some kind of uniformity of thought or approach among societies as diverse as Japan and Jordan is a futile enterprise, as the now defunct 'Asian values' school shows.

But to retire the term to the realm of geography only strikes me as premature. 'Asia' has always meant something more than a common geographic location, for those living on that continent and for those living on other continents.

From classical times, 'Asia' was a reminder that there were non-European societies that were highly developed and literate, based on totally different worldviews from those of Christendom. It was this knowledge that breached the Church's claim on the monopoly of truth long before the arrival of the Renaissance. Later, 'Asia' – or at least the catch-all phrase 'the Indies' — came to symbolise wealth and exotic spices. During the colonial era, 'Asia' came to be used by some of the continent's societies to define what they didn't want to be – Japan's Meiji reformers, for instance, were galvanised into action partly by the desire to avoid the fate of supine 'Asian' societies such as India.

'Asia' became a talisman to those who dreamed of ending the colonial era. The great anti-colonial thinkers and activists, from Jose Rizal to Rabindranath Tagore to Sun Yat Sen, drew inspiration from anti-colonial movements in other countries on the continent. All were energised by Japan's victory over Russia in their 1905 war.

Later, during the Cold War, there was a considerable pan-Asian element to the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement, and the simultaneous adoption of five principles of peaceful coexistence by its leaders, India, China and Indonesia. And, the claims of the Asian values school aside, there was more than a little transnational admiration and copying of the economic models that produced the Asian economic miracle.

Far from becoming defunct, 'Asia' is becoming ever more relevant as a source of self-evaluation for the societies occupying that continent.

'Asia' has come to mean the epicentre of the great convergence that is redefining the world economy and the global power balance. It is in Asia's big societies where the rapid gains in productivity are occurring. A genuinely Asian economy, with distributed manufacturing centred on China and energy links tying together East, South and West Asia more and more tightly, is already in place. Suddenly, to be 'Asian' is to be part of this century's success story, to be among a continental community of optimism and growing clout.

The renewed sense of 'Asianness' also has its dark sides. Now that there is one Asian country (China) big and potentially wealthy and powerful enough that others can imagine it dominating the region, old suspicions and animosities have begun to arise. These are distinctively Asian suspicions, because many of them pre-date the colonial era. They relate to very old rivalries over prestige and hierarchies of civilisations and religions. There is a very Asian underpinning to the new dynamics of power competition across that continent.

Image (courtesy of Wikipedia) is of a Japanese propaganda poster dating from 1904 or 1905, and shows Tsar Nicholas II waking from a nightmare of the battered and wounded Russian forces returning from battle.

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