The single most impressive geographical fact about Asia is its enormous size, both in area and in population. It is by far the largest of the world’s continents—more than four times the size of Europe, larger than North and South America put together, and nearly one-and-a-half times that of Africa.
If area alone does not qualify it for importance, its large population base must surely draw our attention, for within its borders over 60 percent of the world’s people live. And if size fails to interest us, what is it that makes Asia significant? What is so special about this physically vast, socially diverse, culturally complex and politically fragmented continent?
The continent has been the birthplace of all the world’s great religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism. Christianity moved westward to Europe. It influenced several Asian societies substantially through missionaries and the colonial rules. Now several Asian nations contain Christian minorities.
The Philippines is the only Asian country that is predominantly Christian! Hinduism and Islam had more profound impacts. Buddhism is prevalent in various forms in Japan, China, Korea, Sri Lanka, and m all Southeast Asian countries. Islam fanned out of Arabia eastward to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Southwest Asia and Central Asia. Hinduism, basically a non-proselytizing religion, and confined to India and Nepal, left an indelible mark on the civilizations, particularly the art and architecture of Southeast Asian societies.
Asians contributed significantly to the world’s stock of cultural and technical accomplishments, many of which formed the bases for modern technology. Nearly three millennia before Christ, they knew the arts of cooking and pottery, the use of fire for smelting of ores, domestication of animals, the use of irrigation and crop rotation, the use of wheel and a form of paper for writing and had developed elaborate scripts.
Early Asians were familiar with woodcarving, and the casting of metals. They built monuments in stone and metals that still evoke admiration and astonishment. They used the art of calculations including the decimal system, and employed means of measurements. Many of the indigenous systems of medicine, developed thousands of years ago in Asia, are still being practiced in many Asian nations.
Intricate systems of laws and regulations, and delegating authority to institutions of administrations were developed and practiced by early Asian governments. Until the early 15th century Asia’s material advancement was a source of envy by people in Europe. Asia’s resources and prosperity were the main reasons that drove the adventurous from Europe to its colonization and conquest.
Even though during colonial times the economies of Asian countries were not adequately developed, Asia is fairly well- endowed with a number of agricultural produce and minerals. It is world’s important producer of several food grains including wheat, rice, millets and corn (in rice claiming a virtual monopoly of world’s production), although most of its nations are not self-sufficient in their food grain requirements.
A leading producer of tea, natural rubber, cane-sugar, cotton, palm oil, groundnuts (peanuts) and copra with productions ranging from 40 to 80 percent of the world, it contains one- third of world’s cattle, sheep, and nearly one half of world’s swine. The continent produces significant amounts of tropical and subtropical fruits, which are used mostly for domestic consumption.
In the category of mining, Asia’s production and reserves of several minerals, particularly of mineral fuels (such as coal and petroleum) are substantial (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the world). It produces nearly one-fifth of world’s iron-ore, zinc, and lead. Nearly one-half of world’s tin comes from Southeast Asia. Other minerals produced in fairly large amounts (and mostly shipped to the industrialized countries of the West) are: copper, bauxite, manganese, and nickel.
Asia’s power resources are considerable, if not immense, due largely to its petroleum, natural gas and waterpower potentials. It produces 20 percent of world’s coal, and accounts for the generation of one-sixth of world’s water power (reserves and potentials are much larger). All this, at least, forms a good base for industrialization. Recently, Asians have begun to draw upon its vast human and economic resources.
Infusion of capital and modern technology is slowly trickling in. Results have been particularly noteworthy where the capital formation, utilization of modern technology and well- trained labor force has generated vigorous economies, as in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. The Asian labor force is, generally speaking, slowly becoming skilled, and now beginning to compete with those in Europe.
Paradoxically, when we assess Asia’s human resources, we are also presented with both a potential as well as a problem. The high rate of population growth in most of Asia constitutes perhaps the greatest negative factor. But several countries, including China, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore, have recently demonstrated that progress can be achieved in the limitation of population growth.
Asia’s entry into the nuclear age during the 1970s heralds its growing international importance. China became the first Asian nuclear power; India followed and tried an experimental nuclear explosion in 1974. Soon after, Israel, Pakistan, and South Korea acquired nuclear capability and very likely maintain nuclear arsenals. Before the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq was trying to develop nuclear capability.
Although Japan renounced the use of atomic force as a means of settling international disputes, pressures at home have recently risen, and it might revise its policies. Given the region’s political instability, Asia’s nuclear proliferation has acquired an added significance.
Asia is now a continent in transition. The European masters are no longer responsible for its political and economic destiny. Although future remains unpredictable for most Asian nations, there are clear signs that Asia is beginning to assert, relative to the rest of the world, its importance in keeping with its size, resources, and potentials.