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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Introduction: Asia going from strength to strength or is the world on the verge of a new era?

Jean-François Sabouret

Texte intégral

1June 2011

2Asia does not exist and nevertheless it is increasingly present in the international arena. Asia is a controversial concept, just like the fact that “Eastern World” is inaccurate and is often used to describe anything “in the East”, which is not the Western world. What is more different than Tashkent or Ashgabat in Central Asia and Tokyo or Seoul in North-East Asia? Europe and Asia cohabit on the same tectonic plate. So be it, we shall use this term and refer to Asia as the non-Western world whose global dynamism attracts our attention daily.

3From the mid-19th century, Japan openly embarked on rapid Westernisation to be able to fend off Western appetites in North-East Asia. The Japanese were perfectly aware of the Opium War in China (1839-1842) and of its outcome: the defeat of China against the British gunboats. It did not take them long to understand that Japan was not able to defend itself. Many foreign ships had been cruising off the Japanese coasts for some years, and the relatively controlled exchanges with Holland via the Dejima access lock in Nagasaki, which had been going on for more than two centuries, were probably on their last legs. Shogunal power and the political changes brought about by the Meiji period in 1868 generated a similar thought, that of modernising by all means and as quickly as possible’ building “a rich country” with “a strong military”. One of the other major debates at the time in Japan was Westernisation, while preserving its Japanese soul, according to the motto of the Meiji era, “Japanese mind, Western knowledge” (wakon-yôsai).

4One cannot fail to notice that the student of the Western world–Japan at the time–has successfully emulated its teachers in terms of military aggression and colonisation: Taiwan (1895), Korea (1905), Manchuria (1937). It took some thirty years for Japan to modernise and to become one of the main powers in the region through war, defeat, American occupation, economic rebirth that was partially due to external warfare: Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam War (1954-1975) and a profitable strategy in research and development. In 1965, Japan became the third economic power in the world and then the second at the beginning of the 1980s. At one time, Japan was even considered to become the world leader, “Japan as number one”. Unfortunately, the land bubble and the downturn surfaced in the 1990s, but Japan had, however, managed to remain the second largest until 2010. Today, it ranks third, overtaken by China. Will the events, which took place in Tôhoku in the northeast on 11th March (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear threat) make Japan drop even further down the ranks or enable it, on the contrary, to embark on large-scale projects in promising sectors such as renewable energy?

5In any case, Japan has clearly answered the question as to whether modernisation was possible without Westernisation. All the countries of the “Asian Region” have realised that Asia is decidedly going from strength to strength today.

6It has been calculated that the gross domestic product of China and India at the end of the 18th century accounted for more than 40% of the world’s total. Colonisation, wars and many political events in the 19th and 20th century have put a dampener on Asia’s development as a whole. Today, Asia is making a brilliant comeback on the political scene, in terms of military, industry, research and development, creation and even philosophy. No sector exclusively belongs to the West anymore.

7In the 1980s, before the awakening of Deng Xiaoping’s China, Asian countries accounted for approximately 14% of the world’s GDP and 38% for Europe. In 2010, Asia and the EU-27 are almost on an economic par with Asia producing 25% and Europe 28%. It may be assumed that in a few years Asia time, will overtake the European Union and North America (29% in 2010).

8It is not easy to describe the dynamism in Asia and the Pacific region in time and space, unless one decides to draw large frescos, with mixed fortunes. Braudel is second to none! More humbly, for the past 10 years, the Asia and Pacific Network has been weaving a patient web, by patching together snapshots of the various fields of research and the different knowledge corpus of specialists and experts on Asia and the Pacific region.

9The aim is to show the diversity and the wealth of French and French-speaking research. Researchers on Asia and the Pacific region amount to more than 1,800 individuals, making France one of the countries of the EU with the highest number of researchers working on the region. However, the aim is also to express concern: there is a large number of researchers reaching retirement age (the “grandfather boom”). Future generations are coming forward and are rather talented, but when taking the relay, the State may be ill-advised to adopt a hands-off policy: research sectors might be cast aside just when this part of the world, which will probably seek to take over the world, needs to be understood.

10Will this globalisation take place smoothly without armed confrontations? Will the Western world accept to reduce the span of its economic, industrial and military power and leave room for other emerging forces? Or, on the contrary, will it conversely seize this opportunity to try and fulfill the dreams of everlasting peace praised by Kant and integrate into the knowledge corpora, a representative proportion of all civilizations that history has all too often neglected, in terms of their wealth and contribution.

11The world has turned upside down at the beginning of this century. Therefore, it is rather important to ponder the consequences on the future of the Western world and the lives of its inhabitants.

12Around a hundred texts in French attest the quality and the vitality of research and knowledge of our country and French-speaking people; a number that is not so impressive considering the number of specialists and experts in Asia and the Pacific region. Far more would be necessary and we will continue along these lines by publishing a new text every month on the Asia Network website. Several reasons account for the decision to publish these texts in the traditional form of a book, which may be surprising as they have already appeared on the web. The first is to thank all the authors who have taken part in this smooth-running adventure, month after months for ten years, which has enabled us to piece together this corpus of knowledge. The second, the generation-related reason lies in the fact that information on the web is fragile and may be deleted with a single click; power and fragility are interlaced in a kind of technological oxymoron. The publishing value of books is still reliable, if not limited, but the intent is also to refer readers to the extensive and multifaceted works of the researchers.

13Finally, I wish to thank whole-heartedly Maurice Aymard, Alain Peyraube, Jean-Luc Domenach, Jean-Luc Racine and the whole team of the Asia Network for standing by me throughout this long process in which there is still so much left to be achieved…

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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