Faculty of Asian Studies


The Idea of Asia

by Anthony Milner and Deborah Johnson

The idea of Asia is so easy to ridicule, and yet it tugs at the mind. It has a curious potency. It is sometimes referred to (for instance, by Australia's 1996 Boyer Lecturer, Pierre Ryckmans) as a European creation, brought into being for European purposes (Ryckmans, 1993:182). But it is much more than that. As semioticians would put it, 'Asia' is a free-floating signifier [1] - a term the exact meaning of which is not settled. The signification of 'Asia' is, in fact, in contest and it is those who would identify themselves as 'Asians', who have most recently been at the forefront of the defining process. Yet, their involvement is not just a recent phenomenon. This paper will trace the historical contribution of Asian thinkers to our understanding of 'Asia'; will probe the bases for positing an Asian unity and some of the implications; and will indicate that it is Asian notions of 'Asia' which have influenced and redirected the 'Asia' discourse in the 1990s - a reality which may have significant repercussions for Australia.

The Historical Development of Asian Notions of an Asian Unity and Identity

'Asia is one' declared the Japanese art historian, Okakura Tenshin (1862-1913) at the opening of this century. [2] He explained that 'not even the snowy barriers' between Chinese and Indian civilisations 'can interrupt for one moment the broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought of every Asiatic race' and distinguishes these people from 'those maritime peoples of the Mediterranean and Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and search out the means, not the end, of life' (Okakura, 1903:1). Okakura celebrated the cultural idea of Asia. A number of other Japanese commentators favoured a political as well as a cultural Asianism. [3] But a strong Japanese body of opinion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries favoured what was termed 'departure from Asia' (Kimitada, 1968:1-40). These thinkers wanted Japan to disassociate itself from its 'Asian' neighbours and turn more and more to Europe. It can be observed, of course, that whichever side one favoured, whether a collaboration with or an escape from Asia, the concept of 'Asia' held a particular value in this debate. This value was to increase as the Japanese moved toward the Pacific war in the middle of this century, the idea of 'Asia' was to become of critical ideological value in the conceptualising of the Japanese Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.

In India, as well, the idea of 'Asia' was given ideological attention in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Bengali religious leader, Vivekananda (1863-1902), pronounced that, 'on the material plane, Europe has mainly been the basis during modern times'; on the 'spiritual plane, Asia has been the basis throughout the history of the world'. 'Asia', he stated, 'produces giants in spirituality just as the Occident produces giants in politics (and) giants in science' (Vivekananda, n.d.:1, 6). The Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, although well aware of the variation that existed among 'oriental' cultures, nevertheless for years devoted energy to the task of promoting a renascent Asian civilisation. He evoked a specifically spiritual civilisation for 'the East'. At the age of 60, he helped to establish an elaborate Asian Research Institute where Europeans as well as Asians would study Asian languages and cultures (Kalidas, 1957:10-11). It is also the case that other Indian thinkers of the early 20th century stressed the fact that Champa (Vietnam), Cambodia, Java, Bali and other parts of Southeast Asia could be described as India's 'ancient cultural colonies'. [4] Thus, they were suggesting not only spiritual or religious commonalities, but that historical and cultural links with India provided a unifying basis.

Such thinking about 'Asia' did not develop independently in India or Japan. There were connections between the ideologues working across the Asian region. Vivekananda, for instance, visited Japan in the late 19th century; Okakura spent a year in India in 1901-02. Tagore knew of Okakura and was certainly impressed by him: 'it was from Okakura', explained Tagore, that we first 'came to know there was such a thing as an Asiatic mind' (Hay, 1970:38-39). Tagore himself travelled to Japan, China and many parts of Southeast Asia, establishing numerous relationships with leading thinkers in those places. He found that ideas about the 'East' and 'Asia' met resistance in China, where such notions as the 'Middle Kingdom' and 'Southern Barbarians' influenced Chinese perceptions of, and disdain toward, other 'Asian' peoples. But especially after China was defeated in war by Japan in 1895, young Chinese thinkers turned to Japan for inspiration. In China the nationalist regime of the 1920s began to speak of an Asian spiritual unity, naming Sun Yat-Sen as the father of what they perceived to be a Sinocentric movement (Hay, 1970:324).

The Japanese victory over Russia in 1905 gave impetus to the movement toward an Asian unity. Foreign commentators noted a growing 'disposition to believe that Asia belongs of right to Asiatics, and that any event which brings that right nearer to realisation to all Asiatics is a pleasurable one' (Townsend, 1924:20). Japan tended to encourage this feeling by inviting Asian students to Japanese universities and forming the Pan-Asiatic Association and other societies, which fostered closer relations between Japan and the peoples of the Asian region. The constitution of the Indo-Japanese Association, for instance, conveys the spirit of these relations by speaking of 'Asiatics (having) the same claim to be called men as the Europeans themselves' (Townsend, 1924:20).

In 1943 one Japanese author, looking back over the earlier part of the century, observed that the Russo-Japanese war 'awakened from a long night's sleep this humiliated, disrupted, miserable, and numb Asia' (Okawa, 1975:39). World War II gave rise to further developments in this awakening. Ideological statements from the period of the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere of World War II referred to the 'ancient glory of the spiritual life of Asian peoples'. They stressed how, in a sense, Japan had absorbed 'both China and India', and they harkened back to the Buddhist past of T'ang China (7th to 10th century) and its broad influence on Japan and other parts of East Asia. The Co-Prosperity Sphere, it was stated, would exclude non-Asiatic invading powers and would also 'eschew dependence on Europe and America'. It would foster a 'new Oriental capitalist culture' (Yabe, 1975:32).

Some of the ideological discussion about 'Asia' during the Co-Prosperity Sphere period possessed real appeal in a number of Asian societies, including India. Indeed, after the World War II the construction of a new 'Asia' continued. In 1947 the Inter-Asian Relations Conference was held in New Delhi, hosted by the Indian Council of World Affairs. The conference was Nehru's idea and attracted delegations from most parts of the region extending from the Middle East to the Philippines. An 'Asian Art Exhibition' was also held in association with the conference. In 1949 a Conference on Indonesia was held in New Delhi and is sometimes referred to as the second Asian Relations Conference. Nehru explained that, with such conferences, he wanted to 'weld the people and governments of Asia together'. [5]

This sense of an Asian unity was also evident in other parts of the Asian region. In 1954 there was a meeting in Colombo of India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon; and in 1955 the Bandung Conference was held in Indonesia. The Colombo nations had helped in ending the first Indo-China War leading President Sukarno of Indonesia to comment in Bandung that the success of this group 'made it quite clear that the affairs of Asia are the concerns of the Asian peoples themselves' (Sukarno, 1970:460). At the Bandung Conference, which involved both Asian and African states, Sukarno observed that the peoples of these two continents could 'wield little physical power'. 'What can we do?' he asked. 'We can inject the voice of reason into world affairs. We can mobilise all the spiritual, all the moral, all the political strength of Asia on the side of peace' (Sukarno, 1970:459).

Such talk about the moral and other strengths of 'Asia', of course, has undergone a revival in the 1980s and 1990s. (This has been especially so since 1989 following the breakdown of the Cold War bipolarity in international relations within the region). In Japan, for instance, Okakura, who announced at the beginning of this century that 'Asia is One', has been attracting new attention. It is said that he made a 'heart-felt cry of self-assertion of Asians overwhelmed by Western might and civilisation and suffering from Western encroachment'. Japanese today, we are told, 'seem to be placing great weight on his every word' (Shimizu, 1981:18). In the Philippines, to take a further example, there is also a growing interest in 'Asia' indicated, at one level, by a new interest in the use of chopsticks rather than knives and forks and, at another, by a reminder from the Philippine's President Ramos, that 'our Christian roots date back only four centuries, but well before that we were already being strongly influenced by Chinese, Japanese, even Indian and Malay migration' (Funabashi, 1995:17-18).

Malaysian and Singaporean leaders (including Lee Kuan Yew) have been outspoken in support of the notion of 'Asian values', which are distinct from, and different to, American or Western values. Noordin Sopiee, the Director-General of a leading Malaysian think tank, has argued that Asians 'value (to a point many others cannot understand) education and training'. He adds that 'we do not run our societies on the basis of the individual but on the community'. Asians value 'saving and thriftiness', and family loyalties. They are prepared to 'work very hard', he says, and 'do not believe that governments and business must be natural adversaries' (Noordin, 1995:180-93).

A Japanese intellectual has written of 'Asian type' economic growth' (Takenaka, 1995:22); other commentators refer to 'the Asian way' (DuPont, 1996:13-33). The Malaysia Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, has explained that 'Asian Man at heart is persona religiosis'. 'Faith and religious factors', Anwar adds, are in Asia 'not confined to the individual, (they) permeate the life of the community' (Anwar, 1996a).

In recent endeavours to redefine the bases for regional relationships and identities, the reworked term 'East Asia' has gained some currency over the designations of 'North-East' (or simply, 'East') and 'Southeast' Asia - created during World War II by the Allied Command located in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). This term, with its roots in Japanese thinking about a Greater East Asia, gained greater prominence when Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir began to strongly advocate an East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC). [6] 'East Asia', according to Dr Mahathir, is 'a crescent of prosperous nations extending from North-East Asia to South-East Asia...from Tokyo to Jakarta' ( Asian Business Review , 1994:68-69). Mahathir's EAEC has been presented as a rival to the larger APEC grouping a grouping that also includes the Western (and, thus, non-Asian) nations of Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Canada. Prime Minister Mahathir has been unhappy about America's undue influence in the region observing that at the Seattle meeting of APEC in 1993 the key statements were written by United States officials (Mahathir and Ishihara, 1995:48). The Japanese writer and politician, Ishihara Shintaro, has further suggested that APEC is a 'fuzzy concept'. He argues that it is 'incredible to think you can build a complex economic community around the fact that members have a shore line on the Pacific' (Mahathir and Ishihara, 1995:28).

According to Mahathir, the EAEC organisation is inspired by the idea that we must commit ourselves to 'insuring that the history of East Asia will be made in East Asia, for East Asians, and by East Asians' (Mahathir and Ishihara, 1995:16). Recognising its similarities with the World War II Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, one Japanese observer stated that the EAEC 'envisions an Asian economic community with Japan as its main engine', and one excluding 'the leading Caucasian nations around the Pacific rim' (Saito, 1992:16). Faced with the possibility of Australia's exclusion from such a forum, the then Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, proposed the alternative notion of an 'East Asian Hemisphere' encompassing '...the region of nations joined by geography and common interest on the Western side of the Pacific' (1995:3). It was to include North-East Asia, Southeast Asia and Australasia, but exclude the USA and Canada. However, this concept has not been taken up by the subsequent Federal Coalition government elected in March 1996.

The potential for confusion is evident as writers are not always explicit as to what they mean by 'East Asia' - whether they are referring to 'East Asia' as including Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan (i.e. the old 'North-East Asia' designation) or whether they are also including such 'Southeast Asian' nations as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia (as is the case in Mahathir's rhetoric since 1990). Nonetheless, an indication of the growing potency of the 'Asia' (or the more specific 'East Asia') idea is to be found in the recurrence of these terms in the titles of relevant journal and magazine articles. 'Rediscovering Asia' (Shimizu, 1981:4-18); 'Asia, a Civilisation in the Making' (Yamazaki, 1996:106-18); 'the Asianisation of Asia' (Funabashi, 1993:75-85); 'Pitfalls of the New Asianism' (Saito, 1992:711); 'Breaking Down the Borders in Asia' (Woon Tai Ho, 1995:43-48); 'The Future Belongs to Asians' (Kishore, 1993); and 'Asia's Moral Imperative' (Anwar, 1996a); 'The Development of an East Asian Consciousness' (Sopiee, 1995) are some examples.

Asia: A Unity or a Diversity?

Faced with such invoking of 'Asia', the observer, who seeks to stand outside the ideological work going on, tends to ask what real substance there is to an Asian unity. It is the case that European commentators have long used the term 'Asia' to refer to a geographical and, more importantly, a cultural unity. In earliest references the ancient Greeks spoke of 'Asia' with regard to Anatolia (now part of modern Turkey). In Homer's Illiad it denoted the continent which limited the Aegean mariner's eastward movement (possibly named after the West Anatolian principality Assuwa) (Toynbee, 1954:711). Various peoples referred to Asiatics as the people of the Sun or the people of the East (Smith, 1966:233). According to the Lydians, 'Asia' was derived from the names of one of their ancient kings called Asias (Smith, 1966:233). Whatever its etymological origins, 'Asia' came to be used by Greek geographers to refer to one of the three divisions of their then-known world - Europe, Asia, and Africa (Libya).

However, the term 'Asia' also became laden with cultural associations. The Greek historian, Herodotus, presented his account of the past in terms of a long-standing rivalry between 'Asia' and 'Europe' (Toynbee, 1954:708ff). In European writings in later centuries, the term 'Asiatic' came to be closely associated with concepts of lavish splendour, vulgarity and arbitrary authority (Hay, 1957:3). Whilst 16th century geographical works continued to use 'Europa' and 'Asia' to refer to separate continents, 'Europa', in the imagery of the time, was associated with weapons, scientific instruments and Christian symbols. 'Asia' was linked to elaborate attire, camels and monkeys (Hay, 1957:184). In later times, Montesquieu (1689-1755) spoke of Europe as 'progress' and Asia as 'stagnation' (Hay, 1957:122). The modern literary critic, Edward Said, has pointed out that European colonial powers often referred to the Middle/Near East (or the Orient) in ways which underscored their sense of racial and cultural superiority to those they colonised (Said, 1978). The same attitudes prevailed in European relations with their Far Eastern colonies (also called the Orient). Thus, in effect, 'Asia' provided a backdrop or a coherent and culturally distinct 'other' against which a diverse and fragmented 'Europe' could define itself.

To what degree, however, did Asians see themselves as part of an Asian cultural entity? What was their basis for suggesting such an Asian unity? Tagore and certain Japanese authors saw the spread of Buddhism in the early centuries A.D. as a unifying cultural force in Asia. Buddhist influences, which entered Japan in the Nara period of the Eighth Century, had been transmitted along a network of Buddhist influence which stretched from India through T'ang China to Korea. At about this time another educational centre for Buddhism existed in South Sumatra at the capital of the Indonesian Empire of Srivijaya. This centre was in touch with developments in India - with the Buddhist centre at Nalanda - as well as with China. A Chinese Pilgrim, who in 671 A.D. was on his way to Nalanda, is recorded as having said that it was possible in Srivijaya to 'examine and study all possible subjects exactly as in (India)'. He recommended that a Chinese priest 'would be wise to spend a year or two' in Srivijaya before moving on to India (Coedes, 1968:81).

Pilgrims travelling between Nara (Japan), Sian (China), Korea, Srivijaya and Nalanda may have experienced a fleeting sense of 'Asian' commonality. However, this was not the theme of most of the accounts of this period. Take the example of Ma Huan, the Muslim interpreter for the famous Chinese expeditions led by Cheng Ho. These expeditions visited vast areas of the Asian region in the early 15th century. In the forward to his account of these travels, Ma Huan tells of reading a 14th-century travel account and asking himself, 'how can there be such dissimilarities in the world?' He records that after his own extensive travels he 'knew that the statements (in the 14th century book) were no fabrications and that even greater wonders existed' (Mills, 1970:69-70). In the substance of his travel account, it should be noted, Ma Huan does find similarities between specific Asian peoples. He notes similarities in 'speech', 'writings' and 'marriage customs', for instance, between Melaka (on the Malay Peninsula), Semudra (in North Sumatra) and Java. However, he draws no such parallels with the situation in Sri Lanka, Thailand or Champa (in present day Vietnam).

The account of the Asian region by the early 13th century Chinese writer, Chau Ju Kua, reminds us of the long-standing nature of the cultural relationship which existed between 'Confucian states' of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Of Korea he writes: 'their houses, utensils and implements, their mode of dressing and their methods of administration are more or less copies of what we have in China' (Hirth and Rockhill, 1967:167). Of Japan he notes that they 'have the Chinese standard works, such as the Five Classics...all of which are obtained from China'. As regards music, 'they have the Chinese and Korean notation' (Hirth and Rockhill, 1967:171). Of Tonkin (Vietnam) this same author writes that 'the clothing and food of the people are practically the same as in the Middle Kingdom...' (Hirth and Rockhill, 1967:46).

An East Asian 'Confucian' unity - a community that excludes many other parts of the Asian region - has frequently been remarked upon in more recent years. A Japanese author has noted that in Singapore, Taipei and Hong Kong he finds a 'feeling of affinity' - a feeling based upon being in a country belonging to the same 'cultural sphere' (Toba, 1981:27). It is a sphere in which 'Chinese characters are used' and where he will meet people, who are likely to have 'similar tastes in food' and to be of a 'similar emotional makeup' (Toba, 1981:26). He observes that it is understandable that Japanese living abroad often marry Chinese or Koreans. However, he comments that Southeast Asians are different. Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma are in the 'Theravadan cultural sphere'; Malaysia and Indonesia are 'deeply influenced by Islamic culture'; and the Philippines is 'culturally similar to the nations of Latin America' (Toba, 1981:28).

Buddhism, as this comment on the 'Theravadan cultural sphere' suggests, is not necessarily considered to be an element of unity in the Asian region. Over the centuries Buddhism certainly developed in very different ways from one society to another, so that, as another commentator has noted, 'even this seemingly shared religious heritage...offers no real bridge between the Japanese and Southeast Asians' (Arifin, 1992:47).

The evidence of other forms of division within contemporary Asia is abundant. As a senior Singapore Government Minister, George Yeo, observes: 'deep suspicions' still exist 'between China and Japan', 'between Japan and Korea', 'between China and Vietnam', and 'between ethnic Chinese and non Chinese in South-East Asia' (Yeo, 1995:176). Centuries of war and suspicion between Thailand and Burma remind us that even in the 'Theravadan Buddhist world' there is real tension. Similarly, to lump Malaysia and Indonesia together as members of the Islamic world would ignore the importance of differing geographies, colonial experience and ethnic mix.

Despite all the contemporary talk of 'Asian unity', 'Asianisation' and 'Asian values', those involved in practical relationships of one type or another are well aware of the reality of a real variety of perceptions and styles of behaviour in the region. Consider the case of attitudes to human rights and democracy. The South Korean President, Kim Young Sam, (like President Lee of Taiwan) has spoken of 'human dignity, plural democracy, and free-market economics' as having 'firmly taken root as universal values' (Funabashi, 1995:36). In contrast with these views, Dr Mahathir of Malaysia has asked: 'is there only one form of democracy or only one high priest to interpret it?' (quoted in Milner and Quilty, 1996:211). An even greater degree of cynicism has been expressed by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore: 'Let's get the history right', he declares, 'the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written up by the victorious powers at the end of World War II...The Russians did not believe a single word...The Chinese...were espousing the inalienable rights and liberties of man to get American aid to fight the communists' (quoted in Milner and Quilty, 1996:45).

In March 1993, an 'Asian Summit' was organised in Bangkok specifically to determine 'Asian approaches to human rights'. At this summit the Thai Prime Minister insisted that human rights should be developed from within the region, not imposed from outside. The resulting Bangkok Declaration arising from the meeting stressed the 'significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds' (Milner and Quilty, 1996:46). To the extent that a consensus was arrived at in Bangkok, it would appear that it was based upon the notion that there could be no single definition of human rights either within 'Asia' or throughout the wider world.

Business ethics is another area in which a variation of perspectives and values occurs across the Asian region. Take the example of the giving of gifts to facilitate a commercial transaction. A survey conducted by the Far Eastern Economic Review found that in Australia and Hong Kong ethical anxiety about gifts was relatively strong as it was acceptable only to buy a potential client a meal in a restaurant or a drink in a bar; in the case of Malaysia, it was acceptable to buy a drink and give a donation to a client's favourite charity. By way of contrast, in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, the proffering of non-edible, gift-wrapped objects was common-place. Gift giving, to quote Indonesian respondents, 'is part of our culture' (Milner and Quilty, 1996:20-21).

In business, the advertising profession has to be particularly sensitive to cultural difference. The advertising campaign for Liptonice (an iced tea soft drink) provides a revealing example. The advertising theme for Liptonice was 'refreshment among friends'. The way in which the advertisements were tailored for different local audiences was as follows:

Lipton's Taiwan ad features a bicycle ride by two women, which for Indonesians is too small a group to convey friendship. Lipton will film a group of college friends for its ad on local TV there, to impart a sense of community. A South Korean version to illustrate a more purposeful friendship is under development. 'In Korea, you can't relax with a friend by doing nothing. You must achieve something' (the advertising Director says) (Milner and Quilty, 1996:211).

Studies on advertising cite surveys within the Asian region suggesting that in Taiwan and Korea psychological appeals are most likely to be effective. Such appeals involve the offer of an imaginary benefit with little actual support. They are visually informative. Japanese advertising tends to be dramatic and relies on aural information. The advice given to many international companies on the basis of these sorts of surveys is that advertising strategies should 'think global, act local' (Milner and Quilty, 1996:6-7).

Approaches to the role of government in society also differ across the region. This is the case, for instance, with respect to the issue of government intervention in the economy. The South Korean government has adopted a range of measures to accelerate the development of industries capable of competing in international markets - for instance, labour controls, trade barriers and subsidies. Companies that were willing to cooperate with government plans were rewarded and were able to grow quickly; those that did not encountered difficulties. The Indonesian government has been reluctant to engage in such vigorous intervention. Both Thailand's and Malaysia's governments have also maintained relatively open trade regimes by Korean standards (Milner and Quilty, 1996:253-83).

Differences in approach to foreign relations, especially diplomatic and security relations, are also significant in the region. When one examines Malaysian, Japanese or Chinese approaches to relations with other states, it is difficult not to draw conclusions about national styles. To what extent, one tends to ask, are many Japanese leaders influenced by Japan's ethnic homogeneity or Chinese leaders by China's historic concerns about a civilisational hierarchy (with the Han civilisation at the summit) and imperial dignity? Has Malaysia's long tradition of internal diplomacy - a diplomacy operating between the different states or sultanates that make up the Federation of Malaysia today - influenced its skillful regional networking activity? Has the Malaysian regime's current concern for the idea of 'Asia' and 'Asian values', one might also ask, anything to do with the fact that Malaysia, more than any other country in the region, has a society so ethnically divided that only the wide-reaching concept of 'being Asians' can accommodate all of the major communities operating within the Malaysian nation state? (Milner and Quilty, 1996:165-92).

The lesson that emerges when we examine these practical areas, ranging from human rights to approaches to 'international relations', is that the Asia region is so complex and dynamic that the term 'Asia' seems increasingly inadequate. Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam have been ingredients in the cultural mix; so too has the Shintoism of Japan and the Christianity of the Philippines. The impact of colonialism has also been culturally divisive - labour relations laws, styles of government and educational concepts have all been shaped by the contrasting experience of French, British, Dutch or American colonial systems. In China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia there is, in addition, the influence of communism. These contrasts and clashes of religious and political traditions are complicated further by an economic pluralism. The latter is often evident even within a single country as one moves from paddy fields, where traditional agricultural techniques are still in evidence, to modern and post-modern cities possessing spectacular and imaginative architecture. Merely driving a few kilometres - for instance, on a road out of Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta - can demonstrate effectively that we face not one but many 'Asias'.

The variety is everywhere, and, what is more, it is also difficult to mark out a degree of cultural distance between this complex 'Asia' and the wider 'non-Asian' world. Just as Asian countries are enmeshed in global economic processes and global communication processes, so one finds a traffic of ideas that challenges anyone attempting to draw a civilisational or cultural line around Asia or any major part of the region. The ideological give and take between 'East' and 'West' throws into question, for instance, the type of comment on East Asian values made by the Malaysian spokesman, Noordin Sopiee, who would have Asians characterised by the value they place on 'saving and thriftiness' and their willingness to 'work very hard' (Sopiee, 1995:180-93). The stress on 'hard work' in Japan and in certain other Asian societies, so recent scholarship suggests, owes much to the influence of the 19th century British popular philosopher, Samuel Smiles, whose writings about 'self-help' exercised a remarkable world-wide influence (Milner, 1996:6).

In Malaysia itself, commencing in the 1970s the government attempted to reinvent the majority Malay community, which had long been the economically backward segment of the population. Many Malay communal values, it was argued, placed too little stress on hard work, the accumulation of capital and discipline. The task, it would seem, was to be one of making the Malays think more like the Malaysian Chinese (who had been relatively successful in the economic sphere) or like well-known American entrepreneurs. Care was taken to comb the writings of Western sociologists and philosophers, seeking ways to achieve what the Malay leadership termed a ' revolusi mental' or 'revolution in thinking' (Milner, 1996:6). In the 1980s, under the leadership of Dr Mahathir, the new model for Malay entrepreneurial behaviour was sought in the East Asian (here used to mean 'North-East' Asian and, especially, the Japanese) experience.

Such ideological West-East (and vice versa) flow was evident in the work of the early twentieth century thinkers, Tagore and Okakura. They themselves were well acquainted with Western scholarship and contemporary Western thinking. Thus, it might be argued, they were products not so much of Asian cultures as of an interaction or fusion of cultures.

Asia: A Potent Idea

The type of arguments that are mustered against the idea of 'Asia', rather like those that are used against the much-cited concept of civilisational unities developed by Samuel Huntington a few years ago (Huntington, 1993:22-49), seem so convincing that one is left wondering why the idea of 'Asia' has achieved any potency at all. The fact is that it has done so, though the reasons for this are not always readily apparent. The ideological usefulness to Europeans of the concept of 'Asia' has often been emphasised. We are told that 'Western scholars and writers since ancient times have imposed a concept of 'Asia' upon the whole area, despite the heterogeneity of its geography, history and culture' (Embree, 1988:99). The terms 'Asia', 'Asiatic' and 'Oriental' were often used in a pejorative way. The supposed decadence of the 'East' could help to highlight the vitality of the 'West'. It could also help to justify the expansion of European imperialism in Asia, especially in an era when the doctrine of the 'survival of the fittest' happened to be gaining currency. In more recent years the very notion of 'Asia' or 'Asian Studies' has sometimes been regarded as a form of Western neocolonialism. To speak in terms of 'Asia', it is argued, is reflective of a long-standing tendency of Western intellectuals to view the region in exploitative or security-minded terms. 'Asian Studies', following this type of logic, can be argued to imply that Asia, or at least the knowledge of Asia, is in some sense a possession of the West.

At the same time, a cautiousness toward generalising about 'Asia' has been gaining ground in Western societies with some useful results. In the case of Australia, a growing dissatisfaction with the Australia/Asia dichotomy has certainly assisted in developing in the Australian community a more sensitive, nuanced approach to Asian societies. [7] There is irony, then, in the fact that just as our growing sophistication in perceptions of the region is being expressed in a cautiousness toward the category 'Asia', we are now forced to come to terms with the new potency gained by the concept in the region itself. While the European strategies lying behind the use of 'Asia' over many centuries need to be acknowledged, it is impossible to deny the emotive way in which the term is being used inside Asian societies today, or has been used in certain periods in Asia in the past.

The declarations of Okakura, Tagore, Sukarno, Mahathir and other recent exponents make it clear that the idea of 'Asia' can be powerful for 'Asians' as well as 'Europeans'. A commitment to 'Asia', for instance, has been seen in certain times as an expression of opposition to European imperialism - a fact evident in the middle of this century in the ideological formulations supporting the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere and, some time later, in the passionate declarations of Indonesia's first President, Sukarno. The chapter by Ingleson helps to explain the way nation-building and Cold-War preoccupations drew attention away from the concept of 'Asia' for three decades or so after the Sukarno pronouncements in the mid-1950s. Today, a declared commitment to 'Asia' (or 'East Asia') seems to reflect a growing confidence in the region - a confidence that sometimes suggests an element of rivalry with Europe and America, rather than a sense of inferiority or defensiveness. The Singapore diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani, draws attention to such an ethos when he writes of an 'explosion of confidence' among 'East Asians' - a 'growing realisation of East Asians that they can do anything as well as, if not better than, other cultures...' ( Foreign Affairs , 1995:102-03).

The enunciation of the idea of 'Asia', whether in a defensive or a confident tone, seems to imply for Asian speakers a sense of common experience. The presence of such a common experience during the colonial period is discussed by Ingleson. A dramatic assertion of a specifically 'Asian' experience was delivered by President Sukarno when he declared that 'the only time the atom bomb has been used, it was used against an Asian nation' (Castles and Feith, 1970:469). Just as this particular interpretation of the American action is unconvincing (and suggests an element of paranoia) so it is equally difficult to believe that the vibrant economies that characterise much of the Asian region today - the high growth rates, the expanding exports and international investments - are in some sense a specifically 'Asian' experience. Some nations in the Asian region have been bypassed by the economic miracle. Additionally, some nations outside of Asia have also experienced strong economic growth. Nevertheless, what is significant in all this is that leading representatives of Asian societies are invoking an idea of 'Asia' to conjure up a sense of a shared experience, even if it is merely the felt 'Asian' experience of a restricted number of people.

Members of the ever-growing mobile elite, meeting constantly around the Asian region and exploiting to the full each technological advance in communications, may find the fluidity of an 'Asian' identity an attractive feature. It permits them also to conceptualise forms of 'otherness', which they encounter in their international interactions, including a seemingly 'European' otherness. An every-day opportunity for Australians to encounter such a sense of shared 'Asian' experience of otherness is offered through meeting students, who have come from various Asian societies to study in this country. Whatever differences might exist between those students - coming, as they might, from Confucian, Buddhist or Islamic societies; some economically advanced, others in earlier developmental stages - time and again one learns that they all have in common a sense of the strangeness of the Australian educational system. The stress on individuality, on independent analysis, on the need to choose one's own topic and style of interpretation, on the requirement that one must always go beyond any form of rote learning - all these things tend to create a common sense of anxiety in those students, who tend to be used to what can seem a warmer, more caring, more disciplined system of education. [8] Such an anxiety can be felt equally by students from other non-European backgrounds, but in the context of the current 'Asia' discourse, it is likely to be seen by many as a specifically 'Asian' experience.

Asians, when encountering Western styles of music, art, politics and so forth, have sometimes perceived a collective difference - an exotic distance from Western societies. The feeling is likely to be not much different from that experienced by the European composer Debussy, the painter Monet and the playwright Brecht, when they found themselves startled at, and then stimulated by, features of the artistic traditions of Javanese, Japanese and Chinese cultures. [9] One of the less helpful aspects of the impact of Edward Said's influential book, Orientalism, has been the way it has encouraged a scholarly reluctance to see the existence of very real elements of cultural difference in European-Asian interaction over the last centuries. When 'Asians' or 'Europeans' have begun to construct 'Asian' and 'European' identities, it can be helpful to recall that they have done so partly on the basis of a genuine perception of cultural difference.

The business of constructing such an 'Asian' identity - the ideological work involved - requires emphasis in itself. In a period of massive social, political and economic change, such as has been occurring during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - a period in which old identities have been brought into question and new forms of identity and community have been experimented with and sometimes invented - the role of genuine intellectual endeavour is significant. Thinkers and ideologues have their own exploratory mission and are often far more than mere spokespeople for contending political positions. In these two centuries we have seen old types of political and social unity - kingdoms, for instance - being rejected and such new units as the nation state in various stages of construction. Some older religious identities have in a sense continued, but, as in the case of the so-called Islamic fundamentalism, their claim to return to an early thought system disguises the fact that they are, in part, products of a modern epistemology.

Ethnicity, too, is an idea in process. Ethnic categories such as 'Malay' or 'Chinese' may be taken as givens today, but it must be understood that they are really products of ideological experimentation. Members of regional, tribal, family and linguistic subgroups have only begun in recent times to think of themselves as components of larger ethnicities. The process, of course, involves contest. In Malaysia and Indonesia for instance, the proponents of each ethnic identity have competed with the advocates not only of older forms of identity, but also of new types of Islamic identity, and of the different identities arising from the new nationalisms. In the Post-Second World War period some ideological workers began to speak as well of a large Maphilindo identity involving Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. The fact that other people, as we have seen, have been giving stress to a Confucian identity - one incorporating those large communities of people who have been influenced, among other things, by the use of Chinese characters for writing - also has obvious implications for countries possessing large Chinese minorities. [10]

The development of the idea of 'Asia', therefore, is just one among many types of experiment with concepts of identity and community in the Asian region. Even when this experimentation meets the challenge of the reality of an Asian region rich in cultural and social complexity, the conceptual endeavour ought not be treated with undue cynicism.

Implications for Australia

The implications flowing from this ideological experimentation are of some significance for Australia. The actual definitions being given to 'Asia' by non-Australian actors can influence Australian relations with, and shape Australian identity in contrast with, this 'Asia'. As has been evident, the cultural and/or national background of the author is determinative of which culture or nation is given a pre-eminent and determinative role. When one reads an Indian author describing 'non-violence' as the key to Eastern thought (Kalidas, 1957:110), it is clear that India is central in this particular formulation of Asia. Gandhi was more explicit when he declared that 'If India falls, Asia dies' (Hay, 1970:288). The idea of Asia conveyed in Japanese writing about the Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere, of course, gave Japan a pivotal role. Japan was said to have 'absorbed' both India and China (Okawa, 1975:40). Recent discussion of the Mahathir-inspired East Asia Economic Caucus, as we have seen, suggests that this proposed organisation is in some sense a revival of the old Co-Prosperity Sphere again giving Japan (and not America or Australia) a central role even though Malaysians have been its chief proponents.

The question that must concern Australians is where are we positioned in the context of the contending ideas of 'Asia', which are emerging in the region today. The APEC organisation, which includes the United States, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia, suggests an inclusive 'Asia concept'. Japanese views of 'Asia' and its regional composition have been somewhat ambiguous. The influential Japanese journalist, Funabashi Yoichi, in his major account of the development and scope of APEC, writes in certain passages of 'Asia' as if it involves specific phenomena lying beneath the surface of European influence in the region. He cites George Yeo as saying that just as 'Europeans and Americans seek a spiritual homeland in the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions, the chopstick civilisation nations (China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam) share a common bond' (Funabashi, 1995:57). In other places Funabashi describes an 'Asia' that seems able to accommodate such 'Western' countries as Australia. The English language, he notes, 'helps to unite the Asia Pacific' (Funabashi, 1995:29); he gives specific approval also to the efforts of the former Australian Labor Government to situate Australia in a broad Asian context, including a statement by Foreign Minister Evans about the 'increasing recognition of our “East Asianness'' (Funabashi, 1995:19). But Funabashi also quotes approvingly a report observing that 'to the degree there is a sense of identity (in the Asia Pacific), it tends to be Asian, not Pacific', focusing on, among other things, 'an assertive Confucian culture' (Funabashi, 1995:34).

Reading Funabashi and many other commentators on the new 'Asia' suggests the truth of an observation by Malaysia's Deputy Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, that 'Asia has no settled identity at present. It is in the process of coming into being. The long and intense process of self-definition and self-understanding is just beginning' (Anwar, 1996b:186). This means that Australians can still contribute to the process of defining 'Asia', whilst engaging in their process of self-definition. It is apparent, though, that it is not just Australians who will define 'Australia'. It is also apparent that Australia may increasingly be excluded from, or kept on the side-lines of, the discussion of the cultural configuration of the region as the impetus is now being provided by spokespersons within Asia itself.

Looking at the historical record, it would seem that the prospects of the idea of 'Asia' being formulated in such a way as to include Australia are remote. It happens to be the case that Australia was represented at the Asian Relations Conference in India in 1947, but that we were also excluded from the Afro-Asian Summit in Bandung. Despite the Keating government's rhetorical commitment to Asia in the early 1990s, Australia was not invited to participate in the Asian Conference on Human Rights in Bangkok in 1993, nor in the Asia-Europe Summit of 1996.

If the developing idea of 'Asia' does exclude Australia and other 'Western' states, it is still unclear what this will mean in practical terms for Australia's interactions with the region. To what extent will Australia be excluded from participation in particular regional forums? Will it mean that Australia will be relegated to the fringes in the thinking of the key actors from Asian societies? How will this affect Australia's ability to advance its interests in the region? And how will the cultural definition of Australia influence the outcome of the whole range of encounters and negotiations with representatives of Asian communities, including Asian communities within Australia itself?


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[1] The phrase is used by Kasian Tejapira; see, for instance, his contribution to the essay 'Democracy' in Milner and Quilty 1996:153-58.

[2] Okakura Tenshin is the name by which he was commonly known in Japan. He is also known as Okakura Kakuzo. (Note: The Japanese convention of indicating the family name first followed by the given name is used in this paper.)

[3] It was a political Asianism, in which Japan was envisaged as playing a leading role. Opinion, though, was divided as to how Japan was to fulfil its goals. Some (e.g. Saigo Takamori (1827-77)) advocated that Japan advance militarily into the region. Others (e.g. Okubo Toshimichi (1830-78)) favoured modernisation and acquisition of Western technology.

[4] Kalidas, 1957:10-11. See also The Journal of the Greater India Society ; Majumdar, 1986; Nag, 1960.

[5] Sullivan, 1994:4; see also Neale, 1957:278-79.

[6] Mahathir first proposed an 'East Asian Economic Group' (EAEG) in December 1990. The name was later changed to its present form. See Sopiee, 1995:185; see also Mahathir's speech at The Asia Society Conference on 'Asia and the Changing World Order', in Tokyo, Japan, 13 May 1993. Note that the notion of an extended East Asia grouping has been around for some time. Refer Hellman, 1972.

[7] A stress on the significance of cultural difference in the Asian region is a positive aspect of the 'Asia' policy of the new Coalition government which came to power in Australia in 1996. Milner, 1996a:65.

[8] For further discussion, see Milner and Quilty, 1996:69-103.

[9] Their responses are analysed in three recent and perceptive essays: Howat, 1994:45-81; Bromfield, 1994:45-82; Tatlow, 1994:83-108. For a study of the different ways in which Australian artists were influenced by Asian art forms, see Broinowski, 1992.

[10] The whole discussion of the manufacturing of identity has benefitted in fundamental ways from Anderson 1993. A discussion of identity issues in Malaysia is contained in Milner and Quilty, 1996:157-83.

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