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East Asia as a World Region in the 21st Century

R. Bin Wong argues that our understanding of cooperation and conflict, our strategies for managing competition, and our attitudes toward the environment become clearer if we better grasp how our world has long been composed of distinct world regions sharing connections among each other.

R. Bin Wong, new director of the Asia Institute, recently published an essay in the leading Japanese business newspaper, Nihon Kezai Shimbun (August 13, 2004). Click here to read this article in Japanese. The English original is below.

East Asia: World Regions in the Past and Present

In our era of globalization it is easy to think that our world of complex connections is very different from earlier historical periods.  Today’s flows of people, ideas, and goods to distant places create tremendous mixes of varied elements in international cities and on the popular media.  People can feed their bodies with foods of diverse origins and nourish their souls with music born in distant lands.  Yet in the several centuries before 1800, the world also witnessed long-distance flows of people, ideas and goods.  Merchants became sojourners in port cities, bringing their languages, religions, and customs to new settings.  Varied colors, images and rhythms moved along caravan routes to influence painting, poetry and music in culturally distinct areas.  Our awareness of these connections is hindered by our frequent focus on the twin processes of national state formation and the development of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  We have grown accustomed to thinking that national states forge national cultures and citizens have a national social identity, while industrial capitalism creates international markets for raw materials and finished products.  These processes lead to a twenty-first century in which global connections create, for many analysts, a world of converging political and economic systems.  Many observers of course recognize that governments range from democratic to authoritarian and domestic economies from highly industrialized or post-industrial to poor and primitive, but they see the variations on a global scale, as aspects of massive and complex systems of integration. 

The human experience has moved onto a stage beyond twentieth-century national states and industrial capitalism   Some see hope in the very processes of globalization that others strongly criticize as they advocate new forms of localism.  Relatively few voices in the United States, view twenty-first century possibilities beyond the binary of local and global as alternatives to the national.  Conventional views of how the modern world has been forged do not prepare us to identify patterns of diversity that have existed in the past and present within world regions, patterns that are not simply miniature versions of global variations.  Unable to see what has happened historically within world regions, we are necessarily ill prepared to consider how twenty-first century futures can be crafted from older materials.  Our choices between cooperation and conflict, our strategies for managing competition, and our attitudes toward the environment can all become clearer when we revise and improve our understanding of how we collectively have arrived in the twenty-first century in a world that has long been composed of distinct world regions sharing connections among each other.    

Conventional Views of Historical Change, 1500-2000

The modern world is typically viewed as the product of political and economic expansion by European powers to other world regions.  Traits of successful state makers in Europe become more general markers of modern states, while the economic changes of Western Europe become the model for development elsewhere.  When historical change is conceived as a process, the basic dynamics are understood to be those found first in Europe; places in other world regions succeed or fail according to their abilities to imitate patterns found first in Europe.  When historical change is viewed in terms of Europe’s expansion, other regions become part of the modern world according to their relations with the European core and, in the twentieth century, the American core.

As they continued to work at consolidating their domestic rule after the Congress of Vienna, European states increasingly exported a portion of their inter-state competition to Africa and Asia where European colonial empires formed political hierarchies different from both domestic rule and international relations among sovereign states.  Models of political development based on European experiences become problematic for at least two major reasons.  First, European power relations limited the abilities of others to imitate Europeans.  Second, the notion of adopting European practices ignores the presence of domestic dynamics distinct from those in Europe; these perhaps matter most especially in China and Japan where European colonialism was more limited than in other parts of Asia and in Africa.  Similar difficulties exist for understanding economic change based on assumptions that economic success is based on the ability to copy European models.  These assumptions ignore the difficulties that European incorporation of some areas caused for raw material producers and fail to recognize in some areas the existence of dynamics of economic expansion similar to but distinct from those in Europe that predated the spread of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism.  Problematic views of East Asian and world history based on European experiences have had troubling implications for thinking about the future.  Fortunately, recent scholarship encourages us to abandon some of these ill-conceived assumptions. 

New Views of East Asian Trajectories of Historical Change

The Asian production of sophisticated silks and pottery as well as widespread circulation of cotton textiles and grains through complex networks of exchange, in the two to three centuries before 1800, confirms that the same basic processes of specialization and exchange were taking place across Eurasia.  But, the precise institutional forms of economic expansion may not have been the same.  If Nobel laureate Douglass North and the many economic historians influenced by him are correct, European economic expansion depended upon lowering transaction costs through effective contracts that could be defended in courts of law.  The same developments have yet to be found in Asia; for China specifically, where long-distance trade circuits grew earlier, farther and faster than in Europe, a combination of kinship and native place associations facilitated transactions and provided trust among parties to exchange. 

These differences raise questions about the degree to which later nineteenth and twentieth-century economic changes in Asia depend on the adoption of Western practices.  More specifically, the earlier commercial expansions achieved in institutionally distinct ways, raise the possibility that Asians could continue to adopt at least some new technologies from Europeans without agreeing to take on other features of their economic practices.  For instance, particular light industrial technologies could be imported without bringing in the same financial infrastructures or organization of firms.  Alternatively, efforts to introduce some Western institutions could be rejected, the situation that commonly occurred in early twentieth-century China where businessmen often chose not to use newly promulgated commercial laws.  The nineteenth-century flows of technology and capital to Asia from the West combined with native preferences and practices to create new kinds of economic possibilities, some of the most important of which created changes in East Asia’s regional economy—Japan’s economic and political rise within East Asia depended initially on effective use of imported technologies and subsequent creation of colonial empire. 

We can draw at least three lessons from recent research on East Asian economic and political history related to the topics introduced above.  First, the movement of ideas and institutions between East Asia and other parts of the world can range from specific to general—they might be particular technologies or general principles for organizing production; the more specific the transfers, the more easily we can identify the impacts.  We should be careful not to conflate particular transfers with more general changes.  Second, efforts to export more general principles and conventions from the West can create advantages for some groups over others; resistance or refusal to use imported practices can be both rational and effective.  Third, global transfers or exchanges can have their most important impacts at lower spatial scales, making possible altered relations within a world region, like East Asia which shares some common cultural and historical experiences.  Large world regions form an alternative to the local and global that strike so many Anglo-American analysts as crucial. 
East Asia in the 21st century World Civilization

Many of the conventions and practices that are taken to be global norms are in fact European or American in origin.  Ideas about convergence and about what are the best or fairest practices often proceed, at least for Westerners, on the assumption that the rest of the world should adopt their ways of doing things.  This is an incomplete view for at least two reasons—first, what works best in one world region may not work best in another; there is little reason to assume that practices in one world region should consistently provide global norms; second, any change in conventions affects different groups of people unevenly and thus people adversely affected have reasons to resist.  The ease with which Westerners generally and Americans specifically expect convergence to their norms gives East Asian leaders an opportunity to contribute to world civilization in the twenty-first century by making clearer that the assumptions made by many Western proponents of globalization are culturally bounded , self-serving, or both. 

In the past, economic and political leaders made their decisions in different spatial contexts, which were usually conceived of as distinct.  The kinds of problems and possibilities that existed domestically, regionally and globally were not often linked together.  In the twenty-first century, we are more aware of connections among different spatial scales of interaction.  We usually think the global drives or at least constrains the national and some among us advocate local reactions to these changes.  If leaders and citizens in East Asia think more about how to meet challenges and problems at the regional level, they could fashion models for effective competition and cooperation to manage potential conflicts which could become examples for other world regions and an important and positive qualification upon, if not an alternative to, American hegemony.

Asia Institute