Asia, a Civilization in the Making: East Asia, the Pacific, and the Modern Age

As the specter of communism fades, some warn of a new East-West confrontation. The remarkable rise of East Asia in recent decades, they say, has been fostered by a civilization very different from the West's, and this poses dangers for international relations. Such thinking, however, is based on Kiplingesque assumptions about an Asian civilization whose existence it fails to demonstrate. At no time in history has an Asian or Eastern civilization arisen over and above the many national and ethnic civilizations and cultures found in that vast region.

Much writing from the West on the purported divide is economically or militarily alarmist, focusing on huge trade deficits with East Asian countries, China's flexing of military muscle, and a few cases in which Chinese or North Korean arms were reportedly sold to Iraq or Iran. Some go so far as to predict that what they see as East Asian civilization may cozy up to Islamic civilization and make common cause against Western power and values. East Asian writers, on the other hand, tend to be extremely sanguine about their region's recent development and its future, contrasting these with Europe's economic plight and the West's social problems. All participants in the debate, however, emphatically affirm the existence of a distinctive East Asian frame of mind, even if they describe it only by saying that it, unlike its Western counterpart, subscribes to no shared value system like democracy or capitalism.

This very diversity and flexibility, some in East Asia argue, will smooth the way for the integration of their region; even North Korea and Myanmar may be brought in. But such integration requires a binding force capable of overriding the logically incompatible value systems the people of the region espouse. That force could only be a tacitly shared psychology or style of life. Some of the thinkers lined up along the artificial East-West divide have noted common features among cities all around the Pacific Basin and even speculated about a melding there of Western and what they call Eastern civilization. What few have seen clearly, however, is that the force behind the convergence observable in the region today is modernity, which was born in the West but has radically transformed both East and West in this century.


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