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Foreword 2014: «Asia Maior» and its Asia

This short foreword is an introduction both to the «Asia Maior» project – namely a project which has been going on for a quarter of century – and to the contents of the present volume, which is the latest – but, hopefully, not the last – offshoot of this project.

At the end of November 1989, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Professor Giorgio Borsa, then the doyen of Italian historians working on modern and contemporary Asia, became convinced that that momentous event was bound to have powerful repercussions not only in Europe, but also in the rest of the world, including Asia.[1] Accordingly, he gathered his pupils and some of the pupils of his pupils at the ISPI (the Italian Institute for the Study of International Politics) of Milan, and created an informal observatory which would keep track of the political and economic developments in Asia. The main task of the group was to publish a yearly volume examining the political, economic, and, if necessary, social developments of the main Asian countries and, periodically, of the Asian countries of lesser importance.[2]

Both the group and the yearly volume took the name of «Asia Maior» (which, for several years was spelled «Asia Major»).[3] The name was devised by Borsa with reference to the fact that the ancient Romans used the term «Asia Minor» to define modern-day Turkey. Accordingly, in Borsa’s conception, «Asia Maior» was that part of Asia extending beyond its Mediterranean portion. In fact, for many years, the part of Asia on which the attention of the Asia Maior observatory was focused was Monsoon Asia, or what Italian scholars of Asia define as «Asia Orientale (Eastern Asia)»; this is an area including not only China, Korea and Japan, but also South and South-East Asia. Only later did «Asia Maior» gradually extend the field of its analyses to encompass Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia. At the beginning of the present century, Asia Maior (the group) came to define Asia Maior (the geopolitical space) as comprising that part of Asia which borders Turkey and the Arab countries on the eastern side, and the Caucasian countries and Russia on the northern side.

The method applied in the analyses included in the yearly volumes was that of the historian. Giorgio Borsa – who led the Asia Maior group until his death in 2002 – was not interested either in more or less pedestrian political and economic chronicles or the presentation of more or less exhaustive sets of statistical and economic data – the usual stuff of so many yearbooks analysing a given country. On the contrary, what he wanted the Asia Maior group to produce were analyses which distinguished from the sea of facts what were, from a historical viewpoint, the key ones for understanding not only the period under review, but also the long-term trends manifesting themselves in the country under examination. This, of course, was not an objective easy to reach, and, indeed, has not always been reached by Asia Maior’s analyses. However, the continuous endeavour to see the present as history in the making, and to understand it also by detecting its historical roots, has always been the distinguishing mark of the Asia Maior school. Not all the contributions published in Asia Maior in its 25-year history have come up to the exacting standards set by Giorgio Borsa; however, enough of them have been to retrospectively judge the Asia Maior endeavour as a success. Indeed, it is now possible to go back to analyses published 10 or 20 years ago and see how the political and economic trends then elucidated have played themselves out in the following years, up to the present. This is a feat that has been made possible also by the fact that – following a rule originally set by Giorgio Borsa, and scrupulously followed since then – in the Asia Maior chapters there are no predictions, no more or less sophisticated «scenarios» regarding the future, but, quite simply and quite humbly, though also quite importantly, the individuation of the relevant facts and their organization in historical sequences.

The first Asia Maior volume was published in 1990, and, since then, the publication of the yearly volumes has regularly been going on, the sole exception being that of the year 2006, when no volume was published. That gap, however, was closed the following year, when, in 2007, a double volume appeared, analysing the 2005-2006 biennium.[4]

Indeed, at the end of 2006, the informal group created by Giorgio Borsa was transformed into a regular think tank, by a notary act. In that occasion, the name «Asia Major» for both the think tank and the volume was officially changed to «Asia Maior». By then, the original group of scholars gathered by Giorgio Borsa in November 1989 had profoundly changed, only one of its members – the author of these lines – still being part of it. A new generation of younger scholars had come to the fore. Nevertheless, the structure of the yearly volumes, the basic philosophy of the group and the methodological approach had been kept unchanged.

When Giorgio Borsa conceived and launched the Asia Maior enterprise, his plan was to publish a yearly volume written by Italian scholars and aimed at Italian educated public opinion. In other words, Asia Maior’s target was made up of Italians, not only scholars and university students, but diplomats, journalists, entrepreneurs and, more generally, educated people interested in either Asian or international affairs. As a consequence, Borsa wanted the yearly volume to be written not only according to the most exacting scholarly criteria, but in a clear language, devoid of any academic jargon.

In course of time, Asia Maior, the yearly publication, came to be a reference point among Italian scholars and was increasingly categorized less as a yearbook than a scholarly journal. The process culminated in the decision by the ANVUR (the Italian authority in charge of evaluating the national system of higher education and research) to officially classify Asia Maior as a class A journal in the field of Asian Studies.

Although, as noted above, the Borsa guidelines have been strictly adhered to, in recent years, inside what had by then become a regular think tank, the opportunity or, rather, the necessity to shift from Italian to English as the medium of communication was debated. Eventually – and I dare say inevitably – the decision was taken to shift from Italian to English, in order to widen Asia Maior’s target from the Italian educated public to the Italian educated public plus the world scholarly community working on contemporary Asia.

For reasons which need not detain us here, it was decided that such a transition would be gradual, with the present volume being made up of chapters in English with an Italian abstract, and chapters in Italian with an English abstract.

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Asia is not even a valid geographical expression: there are no clear-cut geographical features which set Asia apart from Europe, something which most geographers are well aware of.[5] Much more important is the fact that Asia has historically been the seat of several refined and complex cultures/civilizations. Each of them is as close to or distant from the other Asian cultures/civilizations as they are close to or distant from Western culture/civilization.[6] «Asian values», apart from being squarely based on the Confucian tradition – and therefore alien to many Asian civilizations – are nothing more than a felicitous catchword, a rhetorical device, without much basis in the ground realities of Asia, not even in those parts of Asia where, in the past, the Confucian tradition flourished.

To the lack of geographical and cultural unity we must add the lack of economic unity. Asia Maior, as defined by the Asia Maior group, although more limited than geographical Asia, can nevertheless be divided into at least two main areas: that part which is rich in natural resources and scarcely populated, and the other part, which is poor in natural resources and densely populated. This division is strengthened by the fact that the latter part is characterized by the presence of states with strong and growing economies.[7]

Finally, to the lack of geographical, demographical and economic unity characterizing Asia, one must add the lack of unity as far as the political systems of the several Asian countries are concerned. In this perspective, there is no similarity between India and Iran; China and Japan; the Philippines and Vietnam; Malaysia and Thailand, and so on. Indeed, one could claim that practically all kinds of political regime are nowadays present in Asia Maior, ranging from the biggest democracy in the world, India, to the most bizarre dictatorship on the planet, North Korea.

—-

All the above, although well known, has been said to point out the difficulty of finding a unitary theme which can characterize the political and economic developments in Asia, even in that lesser portion of Asia which is Asia Maior, during the short period of time which is the chronological framework of a single Asia Maior issue. However, although difficult, to find a unifying theme for the yearly Asia Maior issues can be useful in conveying a clear image of the strongest political and economic forces at play in the Asia Maior area during the period under review. For the present issue, covering the year 2014, this unifying theme has been found with reference to China.

Thanks to its economic weight, China exercises a powerful pull on most Asian countries. This makes it imperative for the other Asian countries to adjust themselves to this pull. In each case, this adjustment is a function of an uneasy blending of two contradictory strategies: engaging China and containing China.

Engaging China means to become part of the China-centred economic space; which brings obvious and, generally speaking, conspicuous economic advantages for those nations willing to do it. But China’s increasing assertiveness, a function of its growing economic and military power, is seen as a danger by many of its neighbours. Indeed, it is a danger that many Asian countries bordering with China or, in any case, subject to its economic pull, want to minimize by a policy of containment, based on armed might and the building of a network of either formal or informal political and military alliances. This already complex situation is made even more complex by the fact that there are two major powers, from outside this area, which exercise a powerful gravitational pull on most (in one case) or many (in the other case) of the Asia Maior countries: the USA and Russia respectively.

The USA, at least since Nixon’s opening to China, have appeared to be constantly uncertain about engaging it, considering it as a «responsible stakeholder»[8] in the world order and an indispensable economic partner, or, by contrast, containing it, by building around it a powerful inhibitory framework, a function of the redeployment of US military might in the Asia-Pacific area (a strategy which has lately taken shape in the «Pivot to Asia» doctrine), and the building of a complex network of military agreements with the Asian countries neighbouring China and with Australia. One part of this same containment strategy is usually considered to be the US-sponsored attempt to implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), creating a new free trade economic space encompassing most of the Asia-Pacific countries, and excluding China. However, it can be argued[9] that the final objective of the whole TPP exercise is less to isolate China than to induce it to eventually enter the agreement, becoming part of a US-centred system.

Russia, for its part, has an equally complex relationship with Asia Maior. This relationship is organized around two axes: one is the necessity to maintain or reassert its influence in that part of Asia formerly belonging to the USSR; the second is the necessity to avail itself of the support of China, avoiding the danger of becoming over-dependent upon it.

Of course, engaging China/containing China are the two contradictory forces which have been moulding the system of international relations in Asia Maior for quite some time, and not only in the year under review. However, the choice to highlight the working of these forces in the title of the 2014 issue of Asia Maior is justified by the fact that some of its most important chapters are firmly focused on the examination of the relevance of the China-centred dynamics characterizing international relations in Asia. Indeed, this theme is dealt with particularly in the chapters focused on China and Japan, but also – even if to a lesser extent – in those dealing with North and South Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia, India, Kirghizstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.    But, of course, international relations, although important, are only part of the picture. As always in the Asia Maior issues, a great deal of attention is given to the domestic reality of the single Asian countries, both at the political and economic level.

At the political level, the analyses included in this issue reveal that two contradictory trends are apparent. On one side, 2014 has witnessed the military coup which has put an end – at least for the time being – to democracy in Thailand. On the other side, limited but concrete progress on the path to a full blown democracy has been seen in Myanmar and Nepal. More significant, as far as democracy is concerned, have been the general elections in India and the general and local elections in Indonesia. In both cases, the elections have marked a turnaround in the existing political situation, even if, at this stage, it is not yet possible to accurately judge the full extent of a change which, nevertheless, appears conspicuous.

Finally, at the economic level, this issue’s various chapters show that, by and large, economic growth is once again on the rise. Although decidedly less impressive than before the beginning of the world crisis, the economic growth of the major Asian countries is much faster than that characterizing Western countries. This means that Asian economic growth, in spite of being much slower than before, appears bound to alter the economic – and therefore political – relationship between Asia and the West.

M.T.

 

[1] Professor Giorgio Borsa (1912-2002) was less a historian of modern Asia than a world historian studying the deployment of processes such as the rise of nationalism and the making of the modern world in Asia. His most important work, La nascita del mondo moderno in Asia Orientale. La penetrazione europea e la crisi delle società tradizionali in India, Cina e Giappone (Milano: Rizzoli, 1977, 604 pp.), although untranslated into English, was extremely influential in Italy. In English, a synthetic assessment of the part of Borsa’s work related to India and, more generally, his quite important modernization theory is given in Michelguglielmo Torri, ‘Studies in Italy on Modern and Contemporary India’, Storia della Storiografia/History of Historiography, 34, 1998, pp. 119-51. Borsa’s habit of seeing the history of Asia as an integral part of the history of the world, researching the development in Asia of processes which were relevant in the history of the West, made it easy for him to realize that the fall of the Berlin Wall was bound to have worldwide consequences. Indeed, Giorgio Borsa was among the very few contemporary observers to immediately grasp the significance of that event.

[2] Of course, the major or minor relevance of most countries is not permanently given, but depends on parameters subject to change.

[3] As explained below, the term «Asia Maior» comes from Latin and, in Latin, the «j» does not exist. The spelling with the «j», introduced in the title of the first volume, was the result of the mistaken adoption of an anglicized spelling. Afterwards, for reasons of continuity, the j-spelling was maintained up to the issue covering 2004.

[4] A list of all the Asia Maior volumes is given in the appendix.

[5] E.g., Martin W. Lewis, Kären Wigen, The Myth of Continents. A Critique of Metageography, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

[6] For a classical statement of this point, see William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West. A History of the Human Community, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, and subsequent editions.

[7] The exception to this categorization is Iran. Iran is densely populated, with a relatively strong economic infrastructure (although put under pressure by the US-sponsored economic sanctions), and is rich in natural resources.

[8] As famously urged by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick in 2005.

[9] As done by Francesca Congiu in the chapter on China in the present issue.

 

Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples

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