The Future Is Asian
A typical history textbook in the Western world begins with the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, followed by chapters on the Greeks and Romans, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Columbus and Copernicus, Napoleon and Enlightenment, British colonialism and American independence, concluding with the two world wars. As students advance through the years, the curriculum revisits the ancient, medieval, and modern eras in more detail and with more dramatis personae: Caesar and Cleopatra, the Holy Roman Empire and Black Death, Martin Luther and Louis XIV, the slave trade and Industrial Revolution, the Congress of Vienna and Crimean War, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin . . . and then the baton is passed to social studies.
Generally speaking, non-Western societies are brought into the picture to the extent that they had contact with the West. After all, the Mongols did reach the gates of Vienna in 1241. But the life and times of the Buddha and Confucius, the legacies of the Mughal Empire, the oceanic ventures of China’s Ming Dynasty, and many other foundations of Asia’s heritage might draw blank stares even after a university-level history course. Europeans, because they colonized the world between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, tend to know quite a bit more than Americans about foreign regions. But as much as colonialism enriched the West, it still doesn’t feature much in the Western teaching of the past. Asian textbooks, of course, also focus on their own national and
civilizational histories, generally at the expense of the Egyptians and Greeks. Furthermore, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans are just as willing as Europeans are to whitewash—or omit—their subjugation of, or crimes against, one another. Because of colonialism, however, Asian history cannot wash out the West the way Western teaching does to Asia.
The deep linkages between West and East underscore the need for a more balanced account of global history. However, as Sebastian Conrad persuasively argued in his What Is Global History?, the discipline still suffers from Eurocentrism and a nation-state centered lens, diminishing the role of non-European civilizations as well as global processes such as capitalism that sustained linkages across regions.1
The essence of global history, by contrast, is to recount the coevolution of diverse cultures and appreciate their mutual influence. Remember that both the history of today and the rules for tomorrow are written by the winners—and Asia is gaining ground. As Asia’s ascendancy continues, the biggest gap in Western historical knowledge will be filled by Asians in their own words. What does history look like from an Asian point of view?
Ancient Asia: The Dawn of Civilization
The birth of human civilization as we know it today began in West Asia. In Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Anatolia), the advent of basic farming tools during the Neolithic Revolution enabled humans to evolve from hunter-gatherer tribes into more settled agricultural communities that domesticated animals such as horses and dogs. The Natufian people of the eastern Levantine region were hunter-gatherers who began to grind and bake wheat into bread nearly 15,000 years ago. Fortifications found in Byblos, Aleppo, and Jericho indicate settlements dating to 7000 BC, making these the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Archaeological excavations at Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey have uncovered patterned pottery, uniform brick housing, and even religious icons. By 3800 BC, the great Sumerian city-states of Ur, Kish, and Babylon thrived near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Prehistoric civilizations also flourished in East Asia. Agriculture became widespread in peninsular Southeast Asia by 6000 BC, in Japan during its Jomon period around 5000 BC, and in China around 4000 BC. By 3500 BC, during the early Bronze Age, the largest centers of the ancient world were Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley (today’s Pakistan), which featured wide streets, bathing platforms, drainage, and reservoirs. The Indus peoples worshipped a range of deities, including terra-cotta statues of the female goddess Shakti. With the migration of Aryan (“noble”) peoples from Central Asia around 1800 BC, Indo-Aryan civilization expanded southward into the Ganges plain, where its pastoral traditions and social structures were captured in the Sanskrit-language hymns of the world’s oldest religious texts, the Vedas, which formed the basis of Hinduism.
During the middle Bronze Age, around 2300 BC, Sumerian city-states gave way to the powerful Akkadian Empire and its successor, the Assyrians, who ruled over ever larger expanses as they subdued their Anatolian neighbors the Hittites, who had developed iron smelting for tools and weapons. Assyrians and Babylonians (especially under King Hammurabi) developed complex legal codes governing social life and a sophisticated division of labor among the working classes. They also engaged in diplomacy and trade with Egypt, selling it olive oil, wine, cedar wood, and the resin used for mummification. By 667 BC, Assyria had vanquished Egypt, putting an end to its age of pyramids.
Asia’s civilizations spread their advances in all directions. By 1500 BC, the seafaring Phoenicians of the Levant devised an alphabet system that was documented on Egyptian papyrus and adopted by the Greeks, a major Mediterranean trading partner. Inland, in the Caspian region, the nomadic Scythians mastered mounted warfare, occupied the Central Asian steppe region, and raided settled civilizations such as the Median people (in present-day Iran) while presiding over a vast trading network linking Greeks, Persians, and Indians that flourished from the eighth century BC onward.
These overland routes of commerce and culture reached as far as China, which by the first millennium BC had consolidated its administrative power in the Yangtze River valley. The procession of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties expanded the area of Chinese civilization through alliances and conquest, assimilating the Rong barbarians on their western frontier. At the same time, the Zhou engaged in sporadic trade with the various nomadic peoples of southern Siberia and the more sedentary peoples of Bactria, who made wide use of single-axle chariots. This Western Zhou Dynasty first articulated the notion of a Zhongguo (“Middle Kingdom”) to differentiate their imperial state from those of their vassals and the powerful fiefdoms of the northern plains. The Zhou also produced the cosmological I Ching, a text that sought to align human behavior with the cyclical patterns of nature.2
Three thousand years ago, the forces of commerce, conflict, and culture ebbed and flowed across the vast expanse from the Mediterranean to China in increasingly intense patterns of exchange. Around 550 BC, the nomadic Achaemenid people pushed aside the Scythians as they settled in the Persian region and built an empire that stretched from the Balkans to the Indus valley, the largest empire of the ancient world. Cyrus the Great’s Royal Road stretched 1,700 miles from Susa to Saris in western Anatolia, with horse-mounted couriers covering the distance in only seven days, making them the fastest postal service of antiquity. Cyrus and Darius I established opulent cities such as Persepolis, their administrative authority becoming the envy of Mediterranean peoples. (For the Greek historian Herodotus, Persia represented most of what was known of Asia.) The Achaemenids shared a linguistic kinship with the Sanskrit speakers of South Asia as well as a social stratification of priests, rulers, warriors, and farmers. Their faith, known as Zoroastrianism, was a philosophical monotheism that influenced local religions such as that of the Judaic peoples located on the eastern Mediterranean shores between Mesopotamia and the Nile River.
During the mid–6th century BC, India was the epicenter of new religious awakenings. In the eastern Ganges region (today’s Bihar province,
as well as southern Nepal and western Bangladesh), ancient kingdoms flourished that differed from the Indo-Aryan strongholds to the north. In the Magadha Kingdom, Prince Siddhartha Gautama broke away from the prevailing Vedic Hindu dharma (eternal order or law), becoming an ascetic sage who attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and gave his first sermon at Sarnath. The first Buddhist council, convened soon after the Buddha’s death, was held in Magadha’s capital, Rajgir.3
To the north, in China, the Zhou Dynasty’s transition from bronze to iron made it a pioneer of farming plows, while hydrological technologies such as dams, dikes, and canals enabled it to harness the upper Yangtze River for irrigation. Other Zhou inventions included the decimal system in mathematics and the efficient weaving of silk. Even as the Zhou Dynasty’s stability gave way to the Warring States period (481–206 BC), “a hundred schools of thought” flourished. The military theorist Sun Tzu compiled his treatise The Art of War, which revealed strategies in espionage and battlefield tactics. Great sages such as Mozi, Mengzi (Mencius), and Confucius produced deep philosophical reflections on social values. Naturalistic philosophies such as Daoism also emerged, proposing the duality of yin and yang as seemingly opposing forces that actually belong to the same Oneness.
By 221 BC, the Qin Dynasty had risen and restored stability. Its first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, unified China’s language, units of measurement, currency, tax system, and census. To ward off the nomadic Xiongnu in the west, the Qin began the construction of the Great Wall. Meanwhile, as the Qin crushed their rivals to the east and south, many Chinese migrated across the Yalu River, overrunning the Gojoseon Kingdom on the Korean Peninsula. Both Chinese and Koreans also migrated across the Tsushima Strait onto the Kyushu Islands of Japan, which during its Yayoi period had developed distinctive pottery, bronze bells, and Shinto and animist belief systems. The mainland migrants brought with them Chinese script and characters, which became foundational to Japanese and other East Asian languages. Han people from central China also shifted in large
numbers to northern Vietnam, where the Chinese commander Zhao Tuo established the Nanyue Kingdom, which spanned the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong.
The Qin quickly collapsed with the death of Qin Shi Huang’s son in 207 BC and, after another period of unrest, were supplanted by the even more powerful Han Dynasty, which promoted Confucianism both as a national religion and as a curriculum for the imperial bureaucracy. Particularly under the half-century-long reign of Emperor Wu-di (140–87 BC), the Han united disparate kingdoms into a vast empire, including subduing the Nanyue to the south. Their strength also allowed them to incorporate the territory of the nettlesome Xiongnu into a tributary region and to push through the fertile Gansu corridor into the Tarim basin toward the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia. The Han also forged connections over land and sea with India, Ceylon, Egypt, and Rome, together forming the first trans-Asian trading networks.
The Han westward push forced Yuezhi nomads from Xinjiang to the other side of the Karakoram and Pamir mountains, where they established the Kushan Empire with its center at Peshawar. The Yuezhi assimilated Buddhist culture from the Ganges valley lying to their south and disseminated it northward into Central Asia, where the Sogdian people, who occupied lands between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, were laying the foundations of the great Silk Road cities Samarkand and Bukhara (in today’s Uzbekistan). Meanwhile, from the other direction, the Achaemenid continued their push eastward into this strategic terrain, absorbing Sogdiana as a surrogate province.
The Achaemenid, however, faced a greater challenge from their western frontier as the armies of Alexander III of Macedon (“Alexander the Great”) penetrated eastward as far as the Indus River. Alexander defeated Emperor Darius III but maintained the efficient Achaemenid administrative and tax structures. The eastern Achaemenid stronghold of Gandhara remained a rich mélange of Persian Zoroastrian, Indian Hindu, and Ganges Buddhist cultures with capitals shifting between great cities such as Charsadda and Taxila. The
Mauryan Empire, which emerged from the eastern Ganges Magadha region, conquered northward toward Taxila, with King Chandragupta advised by the great strategist Chanakya (also known as Kautilya). As the Mauryans secured their base at Taxila, Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka adorned Gandhara with Buddhist stupas. The Mauryan Empire weakened with Ashoka’s death in 232 BC, opening the door for King Demetrius of Bactria, a successor to Alexander of Macedon, to capture Gandhara by around 200 BC. Subsequently, King Menander, born at Bagram (north of Kabul), propagated the Grand Trunk Road, which stretched from Central Asia through the fertile Punjab all the way to the mouth of the Ganges.
By that time, the Parthians, heirs to the Achaemenid civilization, had arisen from their stronghold just east of the Caspian Sea to dominate as far west as Anatolia and across the Euphrates River valley and Persia to the fringes of China in the east. Even as they skirmished with the Romans (who had succeeded the Greeks in regional power) in the Mediterranean basin and Caucasus region, the Parthians and their Sogdian middlemen fostered the Silk Road of trade in Indian spices and Chinese tea and silk bought by Romans and Roman glass, silver, ivory, and gold bought by the Chinese, who sent diplomatic envoys such as Zhang Qian on extensive westward tours to build ties with the Parthians.
Despite the region’s vast geographic and cultural diversity, Buddhism was the glue that held numerous Asian civilizations together. Bamiyan became a major center of Buddhist learning where monks nurtured a distinctive artistic style developed fusing Iranian, Indian, and Gandharan forms. Dunhuang in the Tarim basin, the site of stunning Buddhist grottoes chiseled into mountainsides, was the crossroads of several trade routes linking Mongolia and Tibet to Parthia and the Levant. As Han monks and merchants traveled the Silk Road in search of inspiration, they brought back Buddhist texts translated by Sogdians. Buddhism thus extended its reach through the Han Empire in a pincerlike movement from the west and south from India and Southeast Asia. By AD 155, the Han emperor Huan introduced Buddhist ceremonies into the
imperial curriculum to complement Confucian teachings. In East Asia, then, Confucianism came to provide the rules of social organization premised on righteousness and benevolence, while Buddhism, Chinese Daoism, and Japanese Shintoism enabled people’s spiritual aspirations.
The maritime routes linking components of the ancient Asian system were even more significant than those over land. By the first century BC, up to 120 Greek ships per year sailed through the Red Sea and captured the monsoon winds to arrive at Indian ports, returning with jade, beads, and spices brought from Southeast Asian island kingdoms such as Sumatra and Java. Robust trade with the Indian subcontinent accelerated Southeast Asia’s Indianization, especially in the Kingdom of Funan in the lower Mekong Delta and the Khmer people, with whom Indian merchants intermarried, bringing Hinduism and Indian scripts to the Burmese, Javanese, and Thai languages. Indian knowledge of medicine also flowed along this route, finding its way into Chinese pharmacological texts. Funan’s successor, the Srivijayan Kingdom, was a famous Buddhist crossroads. King Songtsen Gampo of the mighty Tibetan Kingdom also adopted Buddhism due to the influence of his Nepali and Chinese wives.
This Indian-Chinese, Buddhist-Confucian exchange spanning India and China via Central and Southeast Asia made ancient Asia a rich cultural zone, lasting well beyond the disintegration of the Han Empire in the second century. The decline of the Han and subsequent Six Dynasties period of chaos empowered the Goguryeo Kingdom of Korea to liberate itself from the Han yoke, creating the largest independent state of the Korean Peninsula; it spanned the Yalu River and the Liaodong Peninsula. Another Korean kingdom, the Baekje, also held its own in territory and trade with China. The Baekje welcomed monks from Gandhara who brought Buddhism to the kingdom in the fourth century, and subsequently many more Indian monks who initiated the construction of monasteries and temples. The princess of Ayodhya in India even married into Korean royalty.
As in Korea, disparate Japanese kingdoms awakened, with the Yamato coalescing into a formidable regime that governed from AD 250 to
710. Under the reign of Prince Shotoku (AD 593–622) in the Asuka period, Buddhism flourished in Japanese society while Confucianism took hold in the bureaucracy. The Yamato adopted the Chinese calendar and sent Japanese students to China to study both Buddhism and Confucianism. At the same time, Japan sought equality with the Chinese emperor and refused to accept a subordinate status. Even as China, Korea, and Japan contested territory, constant migration brought them together into a common East Asian system of commerce and cross-cultural learning.
South Asia, too, continued with its intellectual and cultural advances. The Kushan Empire, led by Emperor Kanishka, strengthened in the wake of the Mauryans’ demise but continued Ashoka and Menander’s nurturing of Buddhism. By the year AD 150, Kanishka came to rule over a vast realm spanning the Bactrian regions of the Tarim basin (today’s Xinjiang) all the way to the Ganges. The Gupta Empire, which subsequently dominated the Ganges region after 320, marked a golden age of cultural and scientific accomplishment with the completion of the epic tale Mahabharata and the invention of the mathematical zero and the game of chess. The great university of Nalanda attracted students from as far as Central Asia and Korea and hosted the reputable late-seventh-century Chinese monks Xuanzang and Yijing, who translated dozens of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese. The Guptas also expanded eastward through Bengal and built strong trade ties with the Srivijaya Kingdom, which over a period of nearly a century constructed the world’s largest Buddhist temple at Borobudur on the island of Java. The Guptas exported textiles and perfumes to Rome—until both the Guptas and the Romans succumbed in the fifth century to Hun invaders from the Altai region east of the Caspian Sea (today’s Kazakhstan).
Still, Asia’s continental connectivity continued to thrive. Paper, silk, gunpowder, and luxury goods traversed the Silk Roads in all directions, as did philosophical ideas and religious doctrines. New faiths also emerged from West Asia. In Roman Palestine, followers of the preacher Jesus Christ began to spread his message across the Levant and
Caucasus; early missionaries such as St. Thomas the Apostle baptized Christians as far away as Kerala in southern India. Meanwhile, the Nestorian Church of Byzantium, splitting from that of Rome, anchored itself at Constantinople in Anatolia and grew its following in the Sassanian Empire, through which it spread eastward across Central Asia and as far as China. Ancient Asia was a richly diverse milieu of civilizations engaging through the forces of commerce, conflict, and culture.
Asia’s Imperial Expansions
Byzantium was not the only religious empire that surged eastward in the centuries following the sacking of Rome. In Arabia, long home to a polytheistic mix of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Nestorianism, and numerous indigenous faiths, the revelations of the prophet Muhammad in Mecca in AD 610 CE inspired Arabs across the land. After his death in 632, Muslim tribes unified under the Rashidun Caliphate, which launched conquests across Egypt and North Africa and overran the Sassanians and Persians to the east. This early Islamic unity, however, gave way to disputes over succession, causing a rift within the ruling Umayyad Caliphate between rival Sunni and Shi’a sects. Already by the early eighth century, Islam had advanced to reach both the Iberian Peninsula of Europe and the fringes of India.
The Umayyad’s successors, the Abbasids, converted the powerful Turkic tribes of the Ferghana valley (in today’s Uzbekistan) and allied with them—as well as the powerful Tibetan Empire, which ruled a vast expanse covering the Tarim basin, the Himalayas, Bengal, and Yunnan—together defeating the Tang Dynasty’s armies (led in part by the Goguryeo Korean commander Gao Xianzhi) at the momentous Battle of Talas near the Tian Shan Mountains in present-day Kyrgyzstan, in 751. Despite its victory over the Tang, the Abbasid Dynasty came in 755 to aid the Tang to put down a rebellion launched by its own half-Sogdian, half-Turk general An Lushan.
While the Arab-Turkic-Tibetan alliance expelled China’s garrisons from Central Asia, its armies and merchants (including those of the
nomadic Uighur people) took westward China’s sophisticated knowledge of papermaking. The Abbasids’ second caliph, Al-Mansur, established a new capital city, Baghdad, on the banks of the Tigris River (just north of the former Sassanid capital city of Ctesiphon). Subsequently, Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809) built a House of Wisdom that gathered scholars such as the Persian mathematician and astronomer Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, who pioneered algebra (al-jabr) and the study of Indian numerals, and Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Nestorian Christian polymath who translated more than one hundred works of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle into Syriac and Arabic. Leveraging this collection of translated knowledge, the esteemed mathematician and astronomer Al-Biruni stood at the Nandna Fort in the hills of Punjab and calculated the circumference of the earth in the year 997. The caliphate’s contributions to the region were thus religious, intellectual, and economic.
Despite its defeat at the Battle of Talas, China under the Tang experienced a great awakening of cosmopolitan culture. Just before the Tang, the short-lived Sui Dynasty managed to unite the northern and southern Han and construct the Grand Canal, which linked the capital Chang’an (Xi’an) with eastern cities such as Beijing and Hangzhou, accelerating the movement of troops and grain. The Sui also sinicized major ethnic minorities and elevated Buddhism into the national religion. The Tang then continued to welcome Malay, Arab, and Persian merchants, even inviting them to live in permanent communities in Chinese cities. Such immigrants made up two-thirds of the 200,000 inhabitants of Guangzhou (Canton), where the Huaisheng Mosque became the first of its kind in China. Tang Dynasty merchant ships reflected this diversity, with crews made up of Christians, Parsis, Muslims, and Jews. Tang vessels crossed the Java Sea and Malacca Strait carrying tens of thousands of fine porcelain bowls and other items to be exchanged for Indian fabrics and Abbasid glassware.
At the time, the Tang Empire’s estimated 60 million people accounted for a quarter of the world’s population, and its cities were larger than any in Europe or India. The Tang leveraged this strength
to expand aggressively into Manchuria in the north, Tibet in the west, and Annam (Vietnam) in the south. By the eighth century, nearly one hundred Asiatic peoples were sending tributes to the Tang emperor. Tang influence also reached a peak in Korea and Japan, where Buddhist sects came to rival the Asuka for power in the late eighth century. Japan’s two main Buddhist centers, Nara and Kyoto, were modeled on Chang’an (Xi’an). The internal strife that plagued the later Tang had dramatic consequences, including the independence of Vietnam and Korea. It also left a power vacuum in Central Asia filled by the nomadic Turks. Turkic peoples such as the Seljuks came to dominate from the fringes of China across Persia, subduing the Abbasid Dynasty in 1051 and defeating the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071, advancing their Persian-Turkic synthesis across Anatolia. Born to a Turkic father and Persian mother, the Abbasid sultan Mahmud of Ghazni embodied this fusion of Sunni Islam with the warrior spirit of the Seljuks, waging relentless campaigns of jihad into Hindustan. The rise of the Delhi Sultanate all but wiped out Buddhism in favor of a syncretic Indo-Islamic culture in literature, music, and architecture.
As Seljuk raiders sacked north India’s disparate Hindu kingdoms, southern India flourished under one of its longest-ruling dynasties, the Chola, who by the ninth century had reached the zenith of power as a seafaring empire. The Chola Dynasty invaded Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bengal, and Southeast Asia, spreading both Hindu and Buddhist culture across Khmer territory (Cambodia) and Java. The Chola achieved a decisive conquest over the Srivijaya in 1025, making them the masters of the Indian Ocean maritime network, with merchant guilds and temple banks financing ambitious commercial voyages to Yemen and East Africa.
As the Song Dynasty of China reconstituted centralized control in the late tenth century, it rejoined the thriving Indo-Pacific trade and shared its invention of the navigational compass and its mastery of shipbuilding. The expansion of the Delhi Sultanate eastward and its conquest of Bengal in 1200 spread Islam through Malacca, Sumatra,
and Java. Such were the Muslims’ seafaring capabilities that by the later Song Dynasty, many had become dominant traders in China’s import-export industry.
Though the Song never achieved the splendor of the Tang, their prosperity grew as they embraced a capitalist culture and the use of paper money. Indeed, the Song were the first Chinese dynasty to commercialize the “tribute system” that focused on gains from trade with secondary powers rather than heavy taxation of the populace. Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Pagan unified central and coastal Burma as well as the Malay Peninsula, strengthening overland trade routes that linked the Bay of Bengal via Yunnan to China. The Chola, Song, and Srivijaya all competed to control strategic maritime passageways such as the Strait of Malacca but also amplified the linkages between their external trade and internal economies.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Eurasia, Europe had been stagnant for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. In the eleventh century, the pope sought to reconcile with Byzantium to repulse the advancing Turks and reclaim the holy land of Palestine. But by 1204, western Christian crusaders had instead plundered Constantinople, further dividing the Christian world and enabling greater gains by the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum. The mystic scholar and poet Rumi came of age in this Turkic-Persian milieu, composing literary volumes that both preached a personal love of God and venerated music and dance as pathways to spiritual union. In Central Asia, the Seljuks faced tough resistance from the Karakhanid confederation of nomadic Turkic tribes, which held firm from Kashgar to Samarkand before splintering into several khanates that became Seljuk vassals. Turkic language and Islamic culture thrived in the madrassas of Bukhara.
The Seljuk khanates and smaller Turkic protostates, however, could not withstand the rapacious armies of the Mongols. After uniting disparate northeast Asian tribes in 1206, the young warrior Temujin took on the name of Genghis Khan, or “universal ruler,” and led savage campaigns across Eurasia. By the time of his death in 1227, Genghis
Khan ruled the largest contiguous empire in history, stretching from the East Sea (also known as the Sea of Japan) to the Caspian Sea. The conquests continued under his sons and grandsons, who swept across Russia and sacked Kiev in 1240, laid siege to Hungary in 1241, and reached the gates of Vienna. In 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad. In 1276, the Song Dynasty succumbed to Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan. A decade later, all of China—as well as the Gobi Desert and Siberia to the north—had fallen under the reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, which Kublai Khan ruled from Shangdu (Xanadu) and eventually from Khanbaliq (Beijing).
For all its brutality, the Mongol Empire was strikingly tolerant: three of the four major khanates were heavily Muslim populated, while the Yuan adopted Buddhism. The Mongols were also shrewd in coopting diverse cultures and intermarrying with leading families. They rounded up hundreds of thousands of Arabs, Persians, and Turks and brought them back to China as administrators, diluting the influence of Chinese Confucian bureaucrats. The Persian physician Rashid al-Din, who served in the court of Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu Khan, authored a three-volume compendium (Jami al-Tawarikh) chronicling this blending of Mongol, Persian, and other cultures.
The Mongols’ provision of reliable security across a vast swath of Eurasia also enabled flourishing trade between numerous civilizations along the Silk Road. Merchant caravans from as far as Europe—including that of the late-thirteenth-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo—brought goods and visitors to the court of Kublai Khan. The rapid connectivity the Mongols enabled, however, also facilitated the rapid spread of a great plague that emanated from Central Asia. By the mid–fourteenth century, about one-third of Persia’s population had died; farther west, half of Europe’s population perished. That pestilence curtailed Silk Road trade and accelerated the decline of Mongol influence.
The Turkic Ottomans were thus able to reclaim Mesopotamia in the 1300s, while also conquering the Balkans, Arabia, and most of North Africa. After defeating the Byzantine army, Sultan Osman I
transformed the land from a Greek-speaking Christian region to a Turkish-speaking Muslim one, while preserving autonomy for Christian and Jewish communities. But a major rival quickly emerged. Claiming descent from Genghis Khan, Amir Timur (Tamerlane) led his armies to restore a vast Persianized Mongol Muslim dynasty covering Central Asia and northwest India. Upon Tamerlane’s death in 1405, the Ottomans wrested control of eastern Anatolia back from the Timurids. The spread of field artillery such as cannon and muskets spurred an arms race among Asian empires.
Timur’s legacy migrated southward into India. Beginning in the early fifteenth century, Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, laid the foundations of a multigenerational succession of Mughal (the Persian translation of Mongol) rulers whose domain stretched from the Fergana valley across most of the Indian subcontinent. Given their partial Turkic heritage, the Mughals soon began exchanging diplomatic missions with the Ottoman sultans. Initially, the Mughals were less tolerant than their Ottoman brethren, destroying India’s Hindu shrines and persecuting non-Muslims. Yet as Babur’s son Humayan and grandson Akbar expanded the empire both north and south, they increased trade with Europeans, modernized the court’s bureaucracy, and instituted a radical degree of religious tolerance. Akbar’s son Jahangir put down numerous revolts to consolidate the empire in the early seventeenth century, and his grandson Emperor Shah Jahan elevated Mughal opulence with Islamic monuments such as the Taj Mahal.
During India’s Mughal era, the Shi’a Muslim Safavids of Isfahan, whose ancestry included Turkic, Kurdish, and Azeri heritage, rose above numerous competing dynasties to become the first indigenous power to unify the Persian realm since the Sassanids, taking control of eastern Anatolia, the Caucasus, and western Turkestan. The Safavids enabled the north–south trade routes connecting Europe to India. An estimated 20,000 Indian traders lived and worked across the Safavid Empire, with Mughal merchants establishing dozens of caravanserai in major trading hubs such as Shemakha and Baku, where they collected
Russian furs, copper, and caviar and brought them back to India via Afghanistan or by ship from Bandar-e-Abbas to Surat.
During the Timurid and Mughal periods in Central and South Asia, internal rebellions in China loosened Mongol control, and by 1368, the Ming Dynasty controlled the Yangtze River valley and claimed its place as the successor to the great Tang. In contrast to Song Dynasty capitalism and Mongol openness, however, the Ming emperor Hongwu curtailed private foreign trade and instituted a highly statist trade regime to project power over neighbors such as Tibet and Korea, which became a Ming vassal state and underwent a cultural sinicization. By contrast, Japan kept its distance from China, with neither the imperial military Kamakura Shogunate, which had fended off numerous Mongol naval incursions, nor its successor, the Ashikaga, submitting to the emperor Hongwu. Only in the fifteenth century did they reestablish ties through a series of diplomatic and trade missions.
Hungwu’s fourth son, Yongle (Zhu Di), continued to expand the Ming Empire by protecting the Uighurs from the Timurids, annexing Annam (as the Tang had done) and cultivating relations with the Karmapa of Tibet. Upon Timur’s death, Yongle reestablished peaceful ties with Persia. Ming China was an export juggernaut, trading from its ports of Guangdong, Shanghai, and Nanjing, perhaps the largest city in the world at the time with half a million residents. To demonstrate China’s incredible wealth, Yongle ordered the Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He to undertake grand expeditions that established relations with Luzon and Sulu (today’s Philippines), Brunei, and Sumatra, and across the Indian Ocean to East Africa. At home, Yongle reconstructed the Grand Canal, built the Forbidden City (modern-day Bejing), instituted a rigorous Confucian examination system, and commissioned a comprehensive encyclopedia of Chinese culture and history. Even though the Ming under Yongle set the global standard for weaponry and shipbuilding, by the 1420s the emperor became preoccupied with defending the northern frontier against the Mongols and Turkic Tatars,
turning China inward to focus on agriculture and limiting foreigners’ access to southern ports.
One major consequence of the Ming shift inward was that large numbers of Chinese migrated to Southeast Asian kingdoms, intermarrying with local women and assimilating into the societies of the Banten Sultanate (Java), Manila, Ayutthaya in Siam, Hoi An (in Vietnam), and Phnom Penh (Khmer). In Siam, Chinese migrants often changed their last names to be considered more local, while King Rama I of Siam was of partial Chinese descent. As a result, from the Malay Peninsula through the Mekong valley and across the waters to Luzon, Southeast Asia in the fifteenth century became a tapestry of blended ethnicities. It was also a complex religious patchwork, with Islam continuing to spread from Sumatra east to Java and north to Malacca, where King Paramesvara converted to Islam in 1414 and changed his name to Iskander Shah. Although Christianity had already established a strong presence in the southern Indian kingdom of Kerala, the arrival of missionaries and explorers from Portugal and Spain greatly accelerated its advance.
Asia and the Western Empires
The Ottomans completed their triumph over Christian Byzantium with the sacking of Constantinople in 1453, at which time most European nations descended into civil war. Seeking more secure routes to the wealthy markets of Asia, Europe’s maritime centers plied multiple long-distance routes in the hope of reaching the Moluku Islands to buy nutmeg and cloves. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus ventured across the Atlantic Ocean, reaching not the Asia he expected but the Caribbean islands. Several years later, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama rounded the cape of Africa to establish trade ties and entrepôts in Calicut and Gujarat. And in 1521, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, aided by the skills of his Malaccan interpreter, Enrique, rounded the tip of South America and leveraged the Pacific Ocean trade winds to make landfall at uninhabited islands near the Kingdom of Cebu. Collectively, these
maritime passageways weakened the Turkic-Arab-Persian Silk Roads across Eurasia. By the 1580s, the Portuguese confronted and defeated the Ottoman fleet in the Indian Ocean, entrenching Europe’s positions from Mombasa to Gwadar, with Portuguese bridgeheads in Goa and as far away as Macao.
With the Ming having withdrawn their Indian Ocean fleets, Europeans took advantage of the latest technologies in shipbuilding and weaponry to advance trade among Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia. As they collaborated with the robust trading network of the southern Japanese Ryukyu Kingdom, they also established durable beachheads of political and religious control. As the Iberians spread across the region (soon followed by the Dutch and British), their merchants drove Indo-Muslim traders from their stronghold of Malacca, began widespread conversions to Christianity, and leased Macau from China in 1557. In 1571, the Spanish colonized Manila, making it the hub of the transpacific trade in silver brought on galleon ships from Acapulco and used to purchase Ming goods sent onward to Europe.4
The enormous Ming appetite for silver became a major vulnerability as both Spain and Japan reduced silver exports to China, causing huge monetary and trade imbalances. With China weakened, the Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who reunified the country in 1590, invaded Korea and China, but Korean resistance and Ming resilience thwarted his efforts. Upon Toyotomi’s death, the Tokugawa Shogunate rose to power but, paranoid about the proselytizing Europeans, chose an isolationist foreign policy from 1640 onward.
By 1644, the Ming had declined and were replaced by the Manchu Qing Dynasty, who put an end to the nomad-warrior Seljuks and Mongols (to whom they were related culturally) and reorganized the disparate Buddhist nomads and steppe Muslims of Dzungaria into the province of Xinjiang. Under Emperor Hong Taiji, the Qing invaded Korea twice, with Chinese princes marrying Korean princesses. The Qing Dynasty’s successive Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong
emperors ruled over continuous prosperity and security, making China the wealthiest empire of the eighteenth-century world.
Casting off the Mongol yoke also enabled the Grand Duchy of Muscovy to pursue a more expansionist course. Through the sixteenth century, the Russian tsardom grew by approximately 14,000 square miles per year as it swept eastward across the tundra and plains, brushing aside the Khanate of Sibir to cement its claims west of the Irtysh River, after which it crossed the Lena River and reached the Pacific Ocean. Pushing south, Russian merchants and armies reached the Amur River, where they first clashed with the Qing but then signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk, exchanging their claims to the Amur valley for all territory east of Lake Baikal and trade routes to Beijing. Stability on Russia’s eastern and southern flanks set the stage for the four-decade rule from 1682 to 1721 of Tsar Peter I, who expanded into Scandinavia and fought a series of wars with the Ottomans for control of the Black Sea. Over the following century, Russia also wrested control of the entire Caucasus region from Persia’s Qajar Dynasty.
The Qing, meanwhile, could not sustain their grandeur, with rapid population growth, fiscal pressures, and corruption bringing the dynasty to the brink of disintegration. As Asia’s large imperial and bureaucratic powers resisted change, smaller European nations outmaneuvered them to achieve global dominion. Through the late 1600s and 1700s, the Dutch displaced the Portuguese from Hormuz to Malacca, and in 1800 they nationalized their corporate colonies across Batavia, Java, Sumatra, and Moluku, including seizing the Qing Dynasty’s Lanfang tributary in Kalimantan. European expansion in Southeast Asian economies relied on long-standing Chinese and Indian diaspora networks of credit that connected European businesses to local Asian markets. As the 1800s progressed, the French colonized Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, fusing them into a French Indochina union. Only by shrewdly balancing the interests of Western powers did King Rama of Siam and his successors manage to maintain the kingdom’s
independence. Still, over the nineteenth century European powers transitioned from colonial intruders to global empires.
The durability of European conquest was enabled by a new set of industrial technologies pioneered in Great Britain, including steam power for ships, locomotives, and factories. As England accumulated large stockpiles of finished goods such as cotton-based textiles, it looked to Africa and Asia as markets to exploit. After its initial forays and skirmishes with Mughal princes on India’s western coast, the British East India Company established a stronghold at the mouth of the Ganges River in Calcutta in Bengal, from which it built out its revenue collection and governance functions across ever greater swaths of India. In 1784, the British Crown took over control of the company, beginning a period of direct rule of the subcontinent from Punjab through Southeast Asia, including Burma, Malaya, and the port of Singapore. During this nineteenth-century “Raj” period of rule, India was the hub for governing all territories east of the Suez Canal, meaning all of British Colonial Asia. In India itself, the British built a national railway network and established institutions such as universities and a modern administrative bureaucracy. At the same time, they enslaved millions of Indians, with tens of millions more dying in famines, undercut domestic industries, and fomented divides between Hindus and Muslims.
Colonialism also stirred Asia’s ethnic pot. The British took Indians to Burma to work as schoolteachers and civil engineers, and Tamils populated Malaya to work on rubber plantations. Tens of thousands of Indians were moved to East Africa as well to build the Uganda railway. Meanwhile, an estimated 20 million Chinese living in or around British coastal concessions such as Canton, Fujian, and Hong Kong shifted to Southeast Asia, where many married locals and deepened Southeast Asia’s multiethnic patchwork.
The British Empire also had grand designs for Central Asia. With India and the kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan firmly under control, England sought a direct trade route to the Emirate of Bukhara. It also hoped to use the Ottomans (with whom England had allied to
push back tsarist Russia in the 1850s Crimean War) and the Persians as buffers to prevent Russia from accessing the Indian Ocean. As it pushed northward from Punjab into Afghanistan, it skirmished with the Sikhs and pushed the Qajars out of Herat. A “Great Game” of maneuvers pitting Anglo and Russian proxies unfolded from Turkestan to Tibet, resulting in an 1893 agreement between the two powers to keep Afghanistan as a buffer state. But to the north, Russia rapidly expanded its railway lines eastward, easily taking the khanates of Khiva, Khokand, and Bukhara and the city of Tashkent. After clashes with the Qing Dynasty over the Illi River region at the border of Xinjiang, it also cemented its control over Turkestan.
British expansionism compounded the Qing Dynasty’s difficulties. Seeking to grow its trade surpluses, the British forced the Qing to absorb ever greater volumes of opium from India, leading to widespread addiction. In 1838, the British responded to the destruction of 20,000 cases of opium with military force, sailing up the Pearl River delta with gunboats and bombarding Chinese defenses, repeating the intrusions in the 1850s. These humiliations were exacerbated by European imperialists seizing Chinese ports as their own dominions in Shanghai, Tianjin, Ningbo, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Hong Kong. China was also plagued by civil wars such as the Taiping Rebellion. In the late nineteenth century, the reformist Guangxu emperor attempted to establish a constitutional monarchy, but a coup d’état led by the conservative dowager empress Cixi thwarted him. The Yihetuan militia also launched a violent uprising (the “Boxer Rebellion”) to expel foreign intruders, but an alliance of Western powers, including England, France, Germany, and the United States, along with their Qing sympathizers, put it down. The failed rebellion further burdened the Qing with indemnity payments and reparations.
The arrival of Western powers brought very different results in Japan. Americans sailed into Edo Bay in 1868, opening the Tokugawa Shogunate to modernizing reforms that restored the Meiji emperor to the throne. The Meiji renamed Edo to Tokyo, centralized governance,
built a national railway, and undertook major economic initiatives around industries such as shipping. As Japan became the leading East Asian power, it sought to emulate the West while also competing with it to dominate regional trade. It asserted itself militarily, defeating China in 1895 to take control of Manchuria, Korea, Taiwan, and the Ryukyu Islands. The United States’ efforts to dislodge Europe from the Western Hemisphere also had reverberations in Asia: In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War over the liberation of Cuba, the United States took possession of the Philippines as well as Spanish islands in the Pacific including Palau, Guam, and the Marianas.
Russia also continued to assert itself in the Far East, forcing Japan to return Manchuria to China so that Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway could be extended to reach the naval base at Port Arthur (Dalian). By 1905, Japan secured a major victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima, winning back Manchuria, gaining the southern half of Sakhalin Island, and forcing Russia to recognize Korea as part of the Japanese sphere of influence. The Japanese further annexed Korea in 1910, sending Korea’s government into exile in Shanghai and then Chongqing. In 1911, Chinese revolutionary nationalists overthrew the Qing, ending China’s last great imperial dynasty. Sun Yat-sen was elected the first president of the new republic, whose seat was in Guangzhou, but warlordism continued to increase across the country.
Japan’s victory over Russia galvanized Asians to shed their fears of foreign aggressors and colonialists. The Ottomans, for example, were inspired by Japan’s defeat of their northern nemesis Russia as well as its ability to modernize without Westernizing. With his mantra “Asia is One,” the Japanese philosopher Okakura Tenshin became a leading voice of Pan-Asianism through his writings on the historical linkages not only among East Asians but also between Chinese and Muslims. Okukura’s Indian counterpart, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, traveled from Japan and Korea to Persia, advocating a return to Asian ideals and traditions. Tagore’s host in China was the renowned intellectual Liang Qichao, who lamented how European colonialism
had severed Asia’s historical interconnectivity and turned Asians against one another. The civil rights lawyer Mohandas K. Gandhi stepped up his campaigns of nonviolent disobedience against British rule in India throughout the 1920s, as did Aung San in Burma.
By 1914, escalating tensions between European empires and their proxies exploded into war. With the promise of having Shandong returned to its possession, China sided with the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and the United States). But after Germany’s defeat in 1917, the Allies handed China’s territories to Japan at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Bewildered at this betrayal—and inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in which Vladimir Lenin dismantled the czarist regime in favor of the interests of workers and peasants—Chinese nationalism surged. Chinese blamed themselves for allowing their own victimization at foreign hands. Seeking to avoid a repetition of the prior century of humiliation, Chinese.officials studied Japan’s rapid late-nineteenth-century industrialization and invited many Western scholars to tour China in the early twentieth century. In 1921, intellectuals including Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao founded the Chinese Communist Party. Still, it was the Nationalists under Sun Yat-sen’s ally General Chiang Kai-shek who united China in 1926, establishing a government at Nanjing in 1928. Meanwhile, with Russia’s postrevolutionary civil war finally ended, the newly created Soviet Union’s socialist empire undertook agricultural collectivization and industrial modernization. Agreements with China secured Russia’s vast eastern Siberian flank.
The end of the great European war of 1914–1917 also brought about the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, with the last Ottoman sultan, Mehmed VI, forced to abdicate in 1922. Within a year, the Ottoman military commander and secular modernizer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established a new Turkish Republic with its capital at Ankara. The partitioning of the Eastern Ottoman Empire through the Sykes-Picot Agreement created a French mandate over Syria and Lebanon and a British mandate in Palestine and Iraq, which became independent in 1932 with
the nationalist Rashid Ali al-Gaylani as prime minister. Saudi Arabia annexed Ottoman possessions in the Arabian Peninsula, with the exception of small British protectorates such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.
Lethargic and strife-ridden Persia also reinvigorated itself in the wake of the Ottoman collapse. In 1925, Reza Khan was formally appointed Iran’s new monarch, crowning himself Reza Shah of the Pahlavi Dynasty. He oversaw a major modernization program of infrastructure and schools. He also declared Iran (the country’s name in Persian) neutral among Europe’s hardening alliances, though he elevated trade ties with Germany, which had no colonial history in the region, and canceled the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s exclusive concessions, for which Iran received only a minimal profit share. Germany’s dictator, Adolf Hitler, sought to expand the country’s territories for settlement by German populations (Lebensraum) and reneged on his secret pact with the Soviet Union to carve up Eastern Europe, instead invading the Soviet Union in 1941. British fears that Germany might conquer the Soviet Union and proceed to take control of Iran’s oil refineries prompted a joint Anglo-Soviet invasion that created a corridor for US supplies to the Soviets. The British conscripted hundreds of thousands of troops from India, while the Soviets utilized Central Asian cotton and tank production to overwhelm Iranian forces and hold off the Nazis.
In the early 1930s, Japan, which had an anti-Communist alliance with Germany, seized on the ongoing conflict between China’s Communists and Nationalists to invade Manchuria again. Appropriating the same language of regional unity it had used to rally pan-Asianism, Japan conjured up an imperialist vision of a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” While the Allies (Great Britain, France, and the United States) focused on confronting the Nazis in Europe and Iran, Japan unleashed devastating attacks on the Allies’ interests in Pacific Asia, beginning with air strikes against Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and Guam in 1941. Japan’s army then marched across French Indochina, Burma, Malaya, and Singapore, taking more than 80,000 British, Australian, and Indian soldiers as prisoners in Singapore alone. British
prime minister Winston Churchill mourned the fall of Singapore in early 1942 as the “greatest capitulation” in British history. Japan’s conquest of Asia spelled the end of European empires in Asia.
Warfare in Europe and Asia was equally devastating. Japan’s pillaging of China caused more than 14 million deaths, displaced more than 100 million people, and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Koreans. The United States’ economic embargo and naval onslaught between 1942 and 1945 then battered Japan across the Pacific islands. While liberating Burma, the Allies also supported the Chinese resistance and the Korean Liberation Army, which retook southern China and the Korean Peninsula. The Soviet Union entered the Pacific war as well, crushing the Japanese army in Manchuria. In August 1945, US forces dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after which Japan surrendered.
Asia in the Cold War
The defeat of Japan, combined with the crippling of the European empires, created a power vacuum in East Asia that was rapidly filled by the United States. Under the guise of Allied occupation, the United States, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, imposed a new democratic constitution and barred Japan from any offensive rearmament. The occupation ended only in 1950. Determined to counteract US influence in East Asia, Soviet forces poured into Manchuria and onto the Korean Peninsula, whose southern half the United States had occupied after liberating it from Japan. While the United States and USSR negotiated at the newly founded United Nations to manage Korea as a trusteeship for a period of five years, both the Soviet-influenced Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south agitated for full independence. As Communist forces moved south across the 38th Parallel, MacArthur’s army pushed back, sparking a full-scale war involving China.
China’s civil war, which erupted after Japan’s surrender, had just ended in 1949 with victory for the disciplined Communist forces led by
Mao Zedong over the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek, whose Kuomintang retreated from the mainland onto Taiwan, which had been returned to China after the Japanese occupation. There the Kuomintang established the Republic of China. In 1950, Mao’s forces pressed across the Yalu River to aid their brethren in North Korea. In 1951, Chinese Communist forces absorbed Tibet. And in 1955, Mao’s forces attacked and seized the Yijangshan and Tachen islands from Taiwan, halting only due to the presence of the US Seventh Fleet and the threat of nuclear reprisal against further Chinese advances.
Mao’s victory in China prompted many US lawmakers to urge President Harry Truman to adopt an “Asia First” strategy aimed at containing the advance of communism in East Asia. The United States committed to stationing more troops in Japan and South Korea, continued to deploy its navy to deter mainland aggression against Taiwan, and established the ANZUS Treaty with Australia and New Zealand in 1951. The United States’ “hub-and-spoke” alliance system became the scaffolding of Asian order.
The US military also surged into Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, the United States had provided covert support for the nationalist Ho Chi Minh’s forces to oust the Japanese from the country’s north. Upon declaring independence from France in 1945, Ho Chi Minh had hoped for continued US support, but the United States instead assisted the colonial French army in the south, which sought to preserve the Indochinese Federation. By 1954, France had to evacuate South Vietnam and grant independence to the kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia. US forces deployed into the country to prop up the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem against the North Vietnamese Communists, whose Vietcong guerrillas the Soviet Union and China backed.
In other major Asian states, independence also came at a high price. The immediate postwar years brought full independence for India, which in 1947 was partitioned along religious (Hindu and Muslim) lines into India and Pakistan, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, respectively. Nearly 15 million people crossed in each
direction between the newly created states, with an estimated 1 million perishing along the way. Independence for Burma and Ceylon followed in 1948. But borders remained unsettled: India and Pakistan entered into a conflict over the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, which had been ceded to India. In Indonesia, the anticolonial leader Sukarno declared independence from the Dutch almost immediately upon Japan’s surrender, but nationalists had to fight several more years until Indonesia won full independence in 1949. The Malay Peninsula, North Borneo, and Singapore were granted independence as Malaysia in 1963, but racial and economic tensions flared between ethnic Malays and the majority-Chinese-populated port of Singapore, which the Malaysian parliament expelled from the federation in 1965. On the whole, whether by liberation or partition, independence brought triumphant moments for Asians even though it meant adopting a new form of rigidly bordered, and contested, statehood.
During the numerous Cold War proxy struggles across the region, US, Soviet, and Chinese factions competed for influence. The United States supported anti-Communist authoritarian regimes such as that of Indonesia’s Sukarno and helped suppress the Communist Hukbalahap insurgency in the Philippines. It also led the formation in 1954 of the region’s primary security pact, known as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO)—meant to be an Asian version of the NATO alliance—that included disparate regional states such as Australia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand. Great-power meddling also encouraged authoritarian dictatorships across Southeast Asia. In Burma, the failure of Prime Minister U Nu’s democratic government to quell Communist insurgencies led to a military caretaker government in 1958; by 1962, a coup led by General Ne Win had established a formal military government. Likewise in Thailand, a brief experiment with democracy was followed by a succession of military dictatorships that coexisted with the respected monarchy of King Bhumibol. In the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos took office in 1965 and soon declared martial law in the country, citing unrest caused by a Communist insurgency.
The United States supported these anti-Communist, military-backed regimes in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, which together with Malaysia and Singapore in 1967 formed the anti-Communist Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In Southwest Asia, British and French dominions—Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon—gained (or regained) independence by the late 1940s. The Arab League was founded in 1945 to give voice to pan-Arab nationalism. Arab interests clashed with the Zionist movement, led by the Jewish diaspora, that claimed Jerusalem and Palestine as its homeland. Despite the recommendation of a UN commission to create separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine, the expiration of the British Mandate in 1948 brought both civil war and a regional Arab war against the newly declared state of Israel. Israel repulsed Arab armies and took much of the territory that had been intended for Arabs under the defunct partition plan. An influx of Jews from Europe and neighboring Arab states fortified Israel’s strength, while more than 1 million Palestinian Arabs became refugees.
The United States became a more intrusive power across Southwest Asia as well, especially as the region’s hydrocarbon wealth expanded. After the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, Great Britain and the Soviet Union divided and occupied the country, deposing Reza Shah in favor of his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and not withdrawing until 1946. The Soviets then backed a separatist Azeri state in northern Iran with its capital at Tabriz and an independent Kurdish republic (both of which were short lived) and created Iran’s Communist Tudeh Party. The United States got involved as well. In 1953, US and British intelligence services sponsored a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalized Iran’s petroleum industry, and restored to power Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Competition for influence spread across the region. While the United States protected Israel and secured its energy interests in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union appealed to the Arab world, aligning itself with anti-Israel nations such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq (whose monarchy was overthrown in 1958).
Many strong Asian states refused to be Cold War pawns. Rather than accept subordinate status to the Soviet Union in a Communist bloc, China under Mao insisted on an independent agrarian socialism. More than 40 million people perished during his late-1950s “Great Leap Forward.” Mao also claimed the mantle of leadership against imperialism and capitalism, competing with the Soviets for influence. Syngman Rhee in South Korea and Kim Il Sung in North Korea also played great-power politics to their advantage, enlisting the United States and China, respectively, to strengthen their national modernization goals. Under Nehru, India actively worked with Indonesia, Yugoslavia, Egypt, and other nations to forge a Non-Aligned Movement that sought to achieve collective security without choosing sides between the United States and the Soviet Union.
India’s nonaligned status helped keep the United States and the Soviet Union mostly out of South Asia, while India forged a close partnership with Iraq, its largest oil supplier. But tensions with China flared as Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India, where he was granted asylum in 1959. Subsequent border disputes culminated in the two-front war of 1962 in which China cemented its de facto control over the strategic Aksai Chin territory linking Tibet with Xinjiang. India and Pakistan’s dispute over Kashmir continued with a 1965 war that resulted in a United Nations–supervised stalemate, after which India drifted closer to the Soviets while Pakistan received greater aid from China. In 1971, India’s aid to Bengali nationalist forces helped East Pakistan secure independence as independent Bangladesh.
With Northeast Asia stabilized, economic modernization became the pathway to geopolitical clout, especially for Japan. The country’s nexus of government regulators, especially the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), and business groups (keiretsu) together engineered a liftoff of the country’s electronics and automative sectors, propelling the country’s growth by an average rate of 10 percent per year between 1958 and 1965. By the mid-1970s, just three decades after its surrender, Japan had become the world’s second largest economy. The “Four Asian
Tigers” of South Korea under Park Chung-hee, Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek, Hong Kong under British administration, and Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew also experienced rapid economic growth as they followed Japan’s model of state-guided capitalism focused on export-led growth while also welcoming foreign investment.
But Asia’s two most populous societies either remained stuck or went backward. India was in a quasi-socialist stasis due to the government’s 1950s nationalization campaign, heavy regulation of private enterprise, and imposition of tariffs to discourage trade. China also continued to subject itself to radical Communist experiments, particularly Mao’s decade-long “Cultural Revolution” between the late 1960s and mid-1970s. Mao sought to rid China of old ideas, customs, habits, and culture by destroying historical artifacts and eradicating the intellectual class.
The 1970s witnessed significant regional geopolitical realignments. The rift between Mao’s China (which became a nuclear power in 1964) and the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev escalated into clashes in 1969 at the border region of Xinjiang and the Soviet Tajik republic, but negotiations between Soviet prime minister Alexei Kosygin and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai prevented escalation. China began to reconsider its hostility toward the United States and through secret negotiations with President Richard Nixon’s administration cleared the way for the US president to visit China in 1972. Though the United States hoped to use its new direct relationship with China to restrain North Vietnam, instead it had to withdraw from Vietnam in defeat in 1973, followed by the unification of the country in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, which was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. That same year, Pol Pot’s revolutionary forces captured Phnom Penh and took over Cambodia, establishing the Communist Khmer Rouge regime in the newly declared Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot’s commitment to autarky and social uniformity led to widespread famine and genocide until Vietnamese forces toppled the Khmer regime in 1979. Vietnam and China fought a brief border war as well in 1979, but China withdrew its forces once satisfied that the Soviets would not assist Vietnam.
Starting in 1978, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, sought to blend socialism with the opportunities of the global economy. He decollectivized agriculture, allowed private enterprise, and opened the country to foreign trade and investment as the “tiger” economies had done in the preceding decade. In May 1980, Shenzhen in the Pearl River delta became the first Chinese Special Economic Zone, luring foreign capital with tax exemptions and light regulation. It rapidly achieved a 30 percent annual growth rate and mushroomed from a village with a population of 30,000 to a bustling city of 10 million. While making China the leading developing-country destination for foreign investment, Deng also signed a landmark Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Japan and improved ties with both the US and USSR.
While the Cold War froze relations between the West and the Soviet Union, Turkey joined the Council of Europe (1949) and NATO (1952). It later applied for associate and then full membership in the European Economic Community, a diplomatic process that kicked off in 1959. Elsewhere in West Asia, instability mounted. Several wars erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s between Egypt and Israel over the Sinai Peninsula and between Syria-led Arab forces and Israel over the Golan Heights. In the midst of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Saudi Arabian–led oil cartel known as the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC, later OPEC) imposed an embargo against major Western states, shocking the global economy. The Gulf countries used this oil windfall to kick off massive infrastructural modernization powered by millions of South Asian laborers and white-collar workers. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, 1 million Koreans also went to the Gulf states to complete megaengineering projects.
Other upheavals shook the Arab and Islamic domains. In early 1979, more than two thousand years of Persian monarchic tradition collapsed as the Ayatollah Khomeini ousted Iran’s Pahlavi monarchy and declared an Islamic Republic. Later that year, Sunni extremists held 100,000 worshippers hostage at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran began to push their respective strains of
Islam outward, especially in Pakistan. In December 1979, amid political chaos in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union invaded the country to install a loyalist government, inspiring fierce resistance from Muslim nations backed by the United States. In 1980, motivated by fears that the Iranian Revolution would inspire Iraq’s own Shi’a majority, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, igniting a decade-long war in which Sunni Arab nations rallied behind Iraq while Iran sought to empower Shi’a movements elsewhere in the region such as the Hezbollah political party in Lebanon. As Iraq expended its energy on warfare and Iran consolidated its revolution in theocratic isolation, Saudi Arabia raised its profile as the world’s largest oil producer and a pillar of regional security, bringing together Arab Gulf monarchies in 1981 to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which aimed at achieving a single market, unified military force, and common currency with its petromonarchy neighbors. In 1985, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan formed the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) to promote greater cross-border trade and investment.
By 1985, the drain of the Afghanistan war and economic hardship at home forced the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev to undertake a concerted reform program toward greater political, economic, and social openness (perestroika and glasnost), establishing détente with the United States and abandoning its policy of overt interference in Communist Eastern European nations. Grassroots revolutions spread in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Soviet client states, each prevailing eventually. In 1991, the Soviet Union itself splintered into fifteen independent republics. The Cold War came to an end, sparking geopolitical and ideological realignments favorable to Asia’s return to center stage in the global order.
As the Cold War ended, West Asia grabbed the spotlight away from Europe. In the aftermath of the 1988 cease-fire between Iran and Iraq, Iran was weakened by war, economic isolation, and the death of its
supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomini, in 1989. Iraq sought to rebuild its strength by turning on its oil-rich southern ally Kuwait. Within months, the United States sent 200,000 troops to defend Saudi Arabia, which became the staging ground for the liberation of Kuwait and massive retaliation against Saddam Hussein’s forces. With US military preponderance established in the region, the United States pursued a policy of “dual containment” against both Iraq and Iran. Despite long-standing US efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian question, Israel’s relations with its Arab minority continued to deteriorate. In 1987, a Palestinian intifada (uprising) against Israeli occupation began, led by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, and a new Islamist faction called Hamas. The intifada calmed only five years later with the Oslo Accords, which set down principles for establishing Palestinian autonomy in the occupied West Bank (and the Gaza Strip).
Between 1990 and 1991, the Soviet Union’s collapse thrust new states into independence. Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan in Central Asia all came to be ruled by their Soviet-era party chiefs. But bereft of Soviet economic support, the reformulated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) soon succumbed to conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan along with a civil war in Tajikistan. The victory of the Islamist mujahadeen in Afghanistan over Soviet forces just three years earlier had made the nearby Muslim societies of former Soviet Central Asia fertile ground for the rise of new militant groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Soviet collapse also meant that China bordered more former Soviet republics in Central Asia than did Russia. China settled its outstanding boundary disputes with these Turkic neighbors and used its largest province, Xinjiang, as a portal to access the raw materials of Kazakhstan, investing in new pipelines stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Tarim basin. As a way of establishing regional coordination with the newly independent
republics, it also founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 1996. Turkey also pressed for stronger ties with its Turkic brethren in Central Asia, but a succession of pragmatic Turkish prime ministers continued to focus on Europe, bringing Turkey into the European customs union in 1995 (though tensions with Greece flared over numerous island disputes such as Cyprus).
East Asian economic fortunes continued to shift with the 1990s expansion of globalization. As the Cold War backdrop faded, South Korea reopened diplomatic ties with its former foes China and Vietnam. China continued its rapid economic liberalization but maintained its centralized political regime, as evidenced by the brutal suppression of protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Western leaders such as US president Bill Clinton, elected in 1992, sought to sanction China for its suppression of political freedom, but Western commercial interests focused on accessing China’s massive customer base. Japan’s economy, meanwhile, suffered a “lost decade” due to the bursting of a speculative-asset bubble, creating space for South Korea’s family-run industrial conglomerates (chaebol) to leverage their government’s tax incentives and cheap credit to challenge Japan’s dominance in heavy industries and electronics.
East Asia’s geopolitical tensions heightened as China’s confidence grew. In 1995, fearing Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui’s independence aspirations, China mobilized forces in Fujian province and conducted missile tests and amphibious exercises in the Taiwan Strait, with the United States responding by sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to compel it to back down. China did, however, regain sovereignty over Hong Kong from Great Britain in 1997 and Macao from Portugal in 1999, marking the formal disappearance of colonialism in Asia. During the mid-1990s, China also became more assertive in the South China Sea, prompting ASEAN to establish the ASEAN Regional Forum to bring China, the United States, Russia, Australia, and other powers under one diplomatic umbrella. ASEAN also expanded to include Vietnam in 1995 and Laos and Myanmar in 1997.
Despite the tense regional atmosphere, China and South Korea began a dialogue with isolated North Korea, which had lost its Soviet patron. However, despite pledges to maintain nuclear-free status on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
Outside China, democratization was a major phenomenon in East Asia. In South Korea, former army general Roh Tae-woo won the country’s first direct presidential election in nearly two decades in 1988, remaining in office until 1993. In Taiwan as well, the incremental Kuomintang political reforms of the 1980s gave way to full-fledged electoral democracy in the 1990s. Political change came unevenly to Southeast Asia. The kleptocratic Marcos regime in the Philippines was toppled, replaced through democratic elections in 1986 by Corazon Aquino, who was hailed as the “mother of Asian democracy,” followed by Fidel Ramos in 1992. Southeast Asia’s export-led growth surge suffered a significant setback with the financial contagion of 1997, in which insufficient foreign currency reserves forced major devaluations and skyrocketing debt in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and even mature economies such as South Korea. The collapse of local currencies laid bare the crony capitalism governing countries such as Indonesia. After three decades of rule, Suharto lost the backing of the army and resigned in 1998 amid waves of demonstrations.
The Soviet collapse was also a major precipitating factor in India’s 1990s shift toward an open economy. As the once significant trade volumes with the Soviet Union plummented and the Persian Gulf War caused a doubling of oil prices, India’s prime minister, P V. Narasimha Rao, and his finance minister, Manmohan Singh, set about reversing Nehru-era central planning, dismantling the notorious “license Raj” of regulations, and welcoming foreign investment, all of which contributed to lifting India above what had come to be known as the “Hindu rate of growth.” At the same time, an insurgency in Kashmir and intermittent conflict with Pakistan soured relations, with both countries covertly accelerating their nuclear weapons programs and conducting nuclear
tests in 1998. Pakistan also faced instability on its western border as the chaos of Afghanistan’s civil war resulted in the radical Taliban movement’s rise from the refugee camps of Peshawar to the takeover of Afghanistan in 1994, after which it began to set its sights on spreading Islamist revolution by harboring terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.
In the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, the region’s economic conditions recovered in the late 1990s and 2000s thanks to increased outsourcing of manufacturing by Western companies and accelerated trade integration. By 2004, Asia’s intraregional trade surpassed its trade with developed countries, insulating the region’s economies from the demand shock of the 2007 Western financial crisis. India, too, continued to grow despite lackluster economic reforms and began a “Look East” policy to capitalize on the rising opportunities for trade and strategic collaboration with East Asia. Meanwhile, Indians, Pakistanis, and other South Asians streamed in ever larger numbers to work in construction or government bureaucracies in the thriving petromonarchies of the Gulf region, whose economies surged on the back of a rapid growth in oil and gas exports to the fast-growing markets of East Asia. In the reverse direction, China expanded its infrastructure projects across Central Asia toward Iran, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.
This growth wave linking West and East Asia deepened despite the sudden turbulence emanating from the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 in response to the 2001 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC. The United States toppled both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq, but insurgencies led by local militias and Al Qaeda against the US-led occupation forces in Iraq and NATO forces in Afghanistan took a heavy toll, with Iraqi refugees crowding into neighboring Jordan and Syria. Meanwhile, a second Palestinian intifada against Israel broke out in 2000 and carried on through the death of PLO leader Yassir Arafat in 2004. In Iran, the strident Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president and pursued a confrontational path with the United States, including ramping up the country’s covert nuclear program. As
tensions with Iran mounted, violence flared around the Arab region. In early 2011, food insecurity and public agitation against corruption fueled antigovernment riots across many Arab states. Civil war shattered Syria, with radical groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) spreading westward from Iraq and millions of refugees fleeing the country for Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Europe.
Most South and East Asian societies spent the 2010s focused on political stability and economic growth. China became the world’s largest economy (in PPP terms) in 2014, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, launched a major stimulus and reform program, and South Korea became the first country to transition to national high-speed Internet. In 2014, India elected Narendra Modi prime minister for his agenda of infrastructure investment, streamlining of regulation, and national pride. In Southeast Asia, Myanmar’s military junta relaxed its grip on power and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the nation’s independence-era hero, to come out of house arrest and become a national political figure; a coup in Thailand against the kleptocratic Shinawatra family led again to military government, albeit focused on infrastructure and economic reform; and Vietnam took off as an industrial production center. The ASEAN nations of Southeast Asia overtook India in GDP and China as a recipient of foreign investment.
East Asia’s economic stability and integration helped mitigate significant geopolitical tensions over historically disputed territories such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan and the Spratly and Paracel islands between China and littoral Southeast Asian nations. Tensions escalated on the Korean Peninsula, however, as North Korea sank a South Korean warship in 2010 and conducted successive nuclear and ICBM missile tests in 2017. Pan-Asian integration nonetheless moved forward in large strides: almost all Asian countries joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), founded by China in 2014, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in 2017, committing trillions of dollars of capital to greater commercial and cultural exchange across the full breadth of Asia—and beyond.