Asians have many links between them. The religion of Buddha, for example, spread across Asia both by land and by sea, as did Islam in a later wave. The language of a seafaring tribe of traders, the Melayu, has spread across the vast Indonesian archipelago and the peninsula of West Malaysia, even entering the southern provinces of today’s Thailand. History books well documented the fact that a multitude of Chinese have settled overseas in Asia, as influential and often wealthy minorities across Southeast Asia, and as majorities in Singapore and Taiwan.
But despite the many links, there has been no one Asia. The region has no single, strong and enduring history of unity and accepted commonality, whether in polity, culture, language or religion. In the post-World War II world, the enduring common reference for Asians has been the United States. Numerous studies indicated that like spokes joined to a central hub, Asians have been more closely connected to the United States than to each other, a disunited Asia that has been dominated by America.
Simon Tay, Chairman of Singapore Institute of International Affairs stated that there is now an emerging trend away from this and toward Asia coming together on its own, without America. But the region has no good record in going it alone. The antecedents of Asian regionalism that do exist have been brief and contested, and do not set a happy precedent.
According to Simon Tay, one period was in the 15th century, when the Ming Empire of China ruled the waves and, in the pre-colonial period, extracted an acceptance of suzerainty from most of the kingdoms in the region. It remains debated how exactly to conceive of the relations between these tributary states and China as the Middle Kingdom.
In his book entitled “Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide from America,” Simon Tay explains that the voyages of Admiral Zheng He were an early version of “shock and awe,” with the Chinese armada filling the horizon and passing through the Straits of Malacca in a procession that, as recorded, lasted the whole day. This left other kingdoms with little doubt that they should acknowledge the greater might of the Middle Kingdom.
The Chinese sphere expanded so far that what is commonly called the South China Sea washes all the way past the Philippines and near the equator, lapping the shores of Southeast Asian states far from the Chinese capital. While China did not impose an empire or single polity on the other kingdoms, it successfully insisted that all pay tribute to the central kingdom.
According to Simon Tay’s book, the second period when Asia was one was under the Japanese co-prosperity sphere. From the 1930s, the Japanese expanded into the Korean Peninsula and present-day Taiwan, and even made inroads into Manchuria on the Chinese mainland. During World War II, the Japanese swept through the mainland and Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, they drove out the Americans.
Sanjeev Sanyal, Deutsche Bank’s Global Strategist in Singapore stated that in Singapore, the Japanese captured what the British had proclaimed to be their fortress east of the Suez, accepting the greatest surrender of soldiers in the history of the British Empire. Japanese conduct during that war and their treatment of civilians can be and is still hotly debated, and it limits the prospects of the Asian community. But one by-product of the Japanese victories over Western powers was that it allowed, indeed forced, Asians to see through the veneer of Western supremacy. Independence movements were spurred by World War II.
The idea of Asian unity also surfaced repeatedly in the early 20th century in opposition to Western colonialism. Bill Emmott, the former editor of The Economist argued that the idea was voiced by Japanese intellectuals, including Kakuzo Okakura, who asserted “Asia is one” in his 1904 book, The Ideals of the East. This seems somewhat ironic.
Japan was never colonized, and while they learned to fear, admire and challenge Western imperialism, the Japanese modernized on Western terms and by the same logic of imperialism. A pan-Asian ideal is also there in the writings of the Indian Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore.
But it was very much a spiritual and cultural idea, rejecting nationalism and therefore the prevailing politics of the time. The Chinese reformer Sun Yat-sen promoted pan-Asianism in a more practical way, urging the region as a whole to fight off Western domination and take up the cause of “the oppressed Asiatic peoples.”
Simon Tay argued that these views gained ground in the independence movements that followed World War II. Pan-Asianism as well as the sense of solidarity between Asian and African nations was strong in this period of anti-colonial struggle. But despite the hopes of South-South cooperation, these sentiments did not last long in the face of distance and the preoccupation of each country with its own national development.
Only with the Asian crisis in 1997-98 did the idea of an East Asian community gain traction. By this time, while there was an echo of pan-Asianism, there was nothing left in anti-colonialism or rejection of the United States. Instead of ideology, the present coming together of Asians is driven by economic logic. This economic pan-Asianism is premised on a shared growth across the region. But it has grown from pain and crisis.