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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

Introduction: What Is East Asia?


The country with what is probably already now the world's single largest national economy is located in East Asia, and three of the world's five largest economies are also Asian — two of them (China and Japan) specifically East Asian. In addition to having the world's largest economy, the People's Republic of China also now has the world's second largest military budget, and is clearly an emerging superpower. Although not nearly as huge as China, some of the smaller East Asian states such as South Korea can also boast astonishing recent success stories. This is a dramatic reversal of the situation that had prevailed a century ago, when a handful of Western European powers, together with the United States and Russia (with Japan already as an emerging junior player), dominated much of the planet economically, militarily, politically, and even culturally.

A hundred years ago China was a collapsed and failed state, and, within East Asia, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam were all colonies of foreign powers. Only Japan appeared moderately successful. Even well into the mid-twentieth century, East Asia still remained largely preindustrial, often bitterly poor, and desperately war ravaged. Even Japan, which almost alone in the entire non-Western world had succeeded in asserting itself as a regionally significant modern power by the early 1900s, was left crushed and in ruins by the end of the Second World War in 1945. A fresh start was required in Japan, which gained momentum beginning in the 1960s. Since that time, first South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, then the People's Republic of China, and recently even (to some extent) Vietnam have all joined Japan – though each in characteristically different ways – in achieving dramatic levels of modern economic takeoff. Beyond any doubt, the rise of East Asia has been one of the most important stories of recent world history.

An argument can be made, moreover, that rather than representing some fundamentally unprecedented departure from past human experience, the recent economic strength exhibited by East Asia is really more of a return to normal. For much of history, China – the largest single component of East Asia – enjoyed one of the most developed economies on earth.