A: CONTINENT OF EXTREMES AND CONTRASTS
Asia has been identified by the National Geographic Society Education Foundation as our topic for geographic awareness emphasis. Why do you suppose this continent has been chosen for study? There are many reasons Asia has been identified as a critical continent for examination in the early part of the twenty-first century. This introduction will provide a selection of facts and generalizations about the physical and cultural geography that make Asia important to the United States and the world at this time. It is a continent of extremes and invites internal comparison and contrast. Just a few examples will be given in this introduction but students are encouraged to identify other data, in addition to what is provided here, that help us understand the geography of this great continent. As you review the following descriptive comments about Asia use an atlas to orient your spatial thinking and understanding.
Geographic terms are always important. Why do we refer to parts of Asia as the Near or Middle East and other parts as the Far East? These terms originated in Europe many hundreds of years ago. Historically, to the European, those lands on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean were ‘near’, or ‘middle’, when compared to China which was ‘far’ east. This logic also gave the islands of Southeast Asia the name the East Indies and the islands of the Caribbean region the West Indies. We in the United States have accepted this labeling of lands by the Europeans. Therefore, from the United States today, we must travel east to go to the West Indies and go west to get to the East Indies.
Note: The author (in some cases the word compiler might be more appropriate) of this introduction wishes to acknowledge the Wiley and Sons book, deBlij and Muller, THE WORLD TODAY: CONCEPTS AND REGIONS IN GEOGRAPHY, 2007, as a reference source. I recommend this reference as a major help to any teacher who wishes to study the continent of Asia. It can serve as an important shelf reference for students who would engage in such a study.
SELECTED LOCATION AND PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS
The largest of the continents, Asia extends more than 150 degrees of longitude from east to west and more than 90 degrees of latitude from north to south. Asia is the location of Mount Everest in the Himalayas, the highest elevation on earth, to the Dead Sea located between Israel and Jordan, the lowest. It includes some of the hottest and coldest, driest and wettest lands on Earth. It is diverse to the extreme as to its cultural characteristics of language, religion, type of government and in other ways.
Asia is located on what many people have called the “Eurasian” landmass. An examination of any world map will substantiate that reasoning. However, to simplify a bit, most geographers agree that Asia is bordered by the Ural Mountains in Russia, the Arctic, Pacific, Indian Oceans, the Mediterranean and Black Seas and the Caucasus Mountains. Additional smaller features could be included. Can you find some of them such as the Bering Strait or the Sea of Marmara?
An analysis of the physical map of Asia will show a number of features that give Asia its unique character. Three of the world’s largest nations, Russia in size, China in area and population, and India in population, are there and the extremely long coastline and large number of islands belie (give a false impression) the fact that the continent has, of forty eight total nations, thirteen countries that do not have direct access to the oceans of the world. Georgia and Jordan have only marginal access to the world’s trade routes.
Deserts, tundra and mountains are other noticeable features with their distinctively different climates and vegetation regimes. Great areas of needleleaf forests cover Siberia and in Southeast Asia are millions of square miles of subtropical and tropical rainforest. The physical environment suggests and limits what humans can do as they develop their lifestyles, but it does not dictate.
Very broad generalizations about the east-west bands of climates of Asia would reveal that the north is very cold, the central band is dry, the mountain band is called ‘undifferentiated’ climate because slope, altitude and latitude can change highland climates significantly over short distances, and the south has humid climates
Drought and unreliable precipitation dominate the natural environments in the realm. The southwestern part of Asia is in the desert belt of the world, the Himalayan Mountains in the South-Central part of the continent and the high latitudes in the North each has an impact on the dry characteristic of the land. South of the Himalayas the winds are warm as they come off of the Indian Ocean. They are full of moisture and cause monsoon conditions in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Northern India. Some years Bangladesh will receive over 500 inches of rain, causing flooding and great destruction. As the winds proceed north over the mountains, they become cool, dropping their rain. As they continue north and cross the high peaks as very dry winds they cause evaporation rather than rain. This condition is called a rain shadow. A result of this transfer of moisture from the ground to the air creates desert conditions. Any area that receives ten inches or less of rainfall in a year is called a desert. Notice on the map the Takla Makan, Gobi and contiguous deserts. This extremely large dry area includes the nations of China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and part of southern Siberia. From the north, the very cold winds move from the Arctic south through Russia and they too release very little moisture. These dry conditions make it difficult to produce agricultural products in much of central Asia.
Asian soils are varied and very important. Where there is adequate rainfall and warm weather multiple harvests are made on the same land. The best examples are in Southern and Southeast Asian river valleys and lowlands where rice is the most important crop. In many areas relatively small patches of productive soils are farmed very intensively to produce wheat and other grains critical to the survival of the population. Irrigation is important in many of the dryer areas of the continent.
An important physical characteristic of Asia can be noted as we look at a map of plate tectonics. A pattern shows that along the Pacific rim from the Kamchatka Peninsula south and then west following the Indonesian islands is a zone that has had a high number of recorded earthquakes and volcanic activity over the years. Most recently was the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 200,000 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of destruction.
Rivers are both visually prominent and very important to the character of Asia. Several of the rivers are among the largest in the world and others, particularly the Indus, Ganges, Yangtze, and Yellow have been called ‘cultural hearths’, places where early civilizations developed.
Interestingly, three large Asian rivers are in the Russian north. The Ob, Yenisey and Lena Rivers have very sparse human population and activity due to their relative location. The mouths of each of these rivers empties into seas of the Arctic Ocean and are ice bound much of the year.
Several rivers, such as the Mekong in the Southeast and the Euphrates in the Southwest, either border, or go through, multiple countries. They impact farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, and in some cases cause conflict. In every case, they provide transportation from the inland areas to the coasts.
Natural resources are abundant in Asia. However, the problem is that they are very uneven in their distribution. While some nations are very rich from natural resources, some must spend what wealth they have to purchase goods to meet their basic needs. Where water is available, soils are the most important resource but oil and gas deposits are the most coveted natural gifts. Many natural resources have been stressed, or depleted, due to population pressure. Soil, timber and fish are examples of this resource problem.
SELECTED POPULATION AND CULTURAL CHARACTERISTICS
A dot map of Asia’s human population of nearly four billion of the world’s six and a half to seven billion people shows several concentrations. A large grouping has grown in East China from the historic location along the Yellow (Huang) and Yangtze (Chang) Rivers to show a dense pattern over the Pacific third of the country. A second concentration is along the Ganges River in northern India, but it too has spread to virtually all of the Indian sub-continent, including Bangladesh and into Pakistan. Additional concentrations are seen in the Indonesian Island of Java and in the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The Southeast Asian peninsular mainland and its archipelago is an area of high relief, of geologic instability, and more than one half billion people including the most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia.
Not only does Asia have, by far, the largest human population of any of the six permanently inhabited continents, it also has the most square miles with no population at all due to the lack of population supporting potential. Overall Asia has high growth rates as compared to world standards.
World history provides us with information about the ancient civilizations that developed in the Yellow, Yangtze, Ganges and Indus River valleys. From these hearths, innovations and technologies have spread throughout and changed the world.
Asia has been the source of most of the world’s great religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and other beliefs. Unfortunately, in addition to good deeds, religions can emphasize fundamentalism and nationalism and cause conflict.
Due to such a large area, Asia is the location of wide cultural diversity. This fact leads to some confusion. For example, many people think of all of the people in the “Middle East” as Arab and Muslim. Arab is a term assigned to those people who speak Arabic. Turks, Iranians, and citizens of Israel do not speak Arabic and Judaism, Christianity and other faiths survive in the heart of the Islamic world.
In the early twenty-first century Islam is part of current affairs thinking in the United States. It is a body of religious thought, and a cultural idea or influence that has many different interpretations. Within Islam divergent ideas can lead to conflict, even violence. For example, in the 1980s, the Sunni sect in Iraq fought a decade long war (1980-1990) with the Shi’ite sect in Iran. More than one million Muslims lost their lives. More than religion as a belief system was involved. Sunnis, under the dictator Saddam Hussein, wanted to establish a secular government while the Shi’ia wanted to establish a government based on strict Islamic rules and punishments. Today, these differences still exist and create strong feelings between and among Muslim countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others. Not understanding these strongly held views has cost the United States dearly in lives and treasure. Conflicts, of both internal and foreign origin, have created millions of Muslim refugees who suffer individually, and who are a serious financial and human resource drain on Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and other nations in the Middle East. For example, over nine million Palestinians have been displaced since the establishment of Israel.
Opposition to both Israel and the United States is one goal that unites many of the Muslim countries and their political and military factions. The creation of Israel, by the United Nations in 1948, has been interpreted by many as the focus of all Islamic unrest. Some Muslim groups have joined an organization named “al-Qaeda”, whose goal is to punish those nations who they perceive to be “enemies” of all Muslim peoples. Al- Qaeda, is a loosely organized, and hard to identify, but they agree to use terrorist methods to gain their goals. They are not just attacking Israel, the United States and “coalition” forces, but they have stated that they wish to overthrow the government of Saudi Arabia in order to establish a “true” Islamic state. Other Muslim countries that have been the sites of terrorist activity include Indonesia, Philippines and Bangladesh.
Southwest Asia is occupied by the largest “stateless nation” in the world. Twenty six million Kurds live in an area (they call Kurdistan) that includes Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They are the world’s largest ethnic group without their own state. They have been mistreated by their host nations and have received baseless promises of independence on several occasions. In 2007 the Kurdish area of Iraq has been a rather peaceful region and it has oil resources. The Kurds have hopes of receiving some degree of autonomy but is opposed mainly by Turkey.
South Asia, well defined by physical features, is the region that consists of seven countries that have a combined population of over 1.5 billion people who share low per capita incomes, low levels of education, poor diets and health conditions.
Of critical importance to the entire world, is the fact that China has over 1.3 billion citizens, India has over 1 billion and some of the islands of Southeast Asia have the densest concentrations of people. Some experts see these conditions as a problem of food supply, others see huge markets and productive workers, while still others fear such large numbers could be formed into huge armies. India is the world’s largest democracy, but like China, its economy is not as stable as it should be. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation by population.
As we study Asia, we should remember that the Americas were discovered by the Europeans who wished to find a shorter route to China, and its resources.
In many places in Asia, foreign powers have influenced the cultural and physical geography to the extent that current political management and cooperation is difficult. Afghanistan is a prime example. That nation was created in 1919 as a compromise between the Soviet Union and Britain to be a buffer zone between Soviet held territory and British controlled Pakistan. Today it is a complex nation made up of at least seven different ethnic groups.
Many of the countries in Asia have been fragmented and unified during the last several thousand years. Many wars, some civil and most against neighbors, have been fought in Asia over the centuries. Unfortunately, this is still the case in the twenty-first century as nations conflict over resources, territory, race, religion and for other reasons, some real and others perceived. Of course, one of the important reasons Asia is important to the United States is the war, or wars, being fought in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and Pakistan. Different individuals, depending on their points of view, have very different understandings of the reasons and goals of these conflicts. The sad conclusion, however, is that it is costing many American and Asian lives and treasure that might be better used to develop resources in a manner that would help raise the level of living of many people.
In Asia there are many boundary disputes that could develop into armed conflict. This problem is made worse by the long history of past wartime activity among neighbors. Such conflicts and conduct are not easily forgotten or forgiven.
MAJOR ECONOMIC ACTIVITY
In 1967 an Association of South-East Asian Nations was formed to promote economic cooperation among its members. It was formed with five members but in 2007 totals ten countries. It has been modest success, but civil rights abuses by at least one member has kept the Association from wide spread success. 2007 members include – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Asia’s Pacific rim is characterized by an economic transformation that has tended to orient economic activity toward overseas markets.
Most of the very large population of Asia is dependent on grains. Wheat predominates in the northern regions and rice in the wetter southern regions. Animal protein is gaining popularity but it presents a problem because animal production requires much more land than does grain. Fish production is an important economic activity in coastal and island regions but production has unfortunately reached near maximum.
Colonialism by both European and Asian nations has influenced the development of Asian economies in ways that held back wealth generation for many years. This influence has been mitigated considerably over the last half century.
Much wealth has been realized through oil and gas development, but a problem is that most of the profits benefit the rulers and foreign companies rather than Asian citizens. Another problem is the interruption to efficient economic development due to wars and other conflict. Economic sanctions implemented by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union have disrupted the economies of various countries such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
India has made some economic progress taking “out-sourced” work from more advanced countries, primarily the United States. Never-the-less, more than one-half of South Asia’s population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. The country has developed an important technical educational program for intellectually bright students, however, some economists feel that India’s economic future is “bleak”.
Although China, particularly the eastern Pacific Rim, is technologically advanced and urbanized, it still remains a mainly a rural society that depends on its river basins to feed hundreds of millions of its citizens. China’s sparsely populated western regions are heavily influenced by central Asia’s Islamic groups. The Beijing government has relocated thousands of traditional Han (Eastern) citizens to the west to govern and to buffer Turkestan’s influences. (Turkestan is the name given to Afghanistan and the five former republics of the Soviet Union that are, today, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan.)
China’s economic growth has many problem areas such as political corruption, arbitrary arrests, lack of even legal protection, governmental taking of property, environmental pollution and uneven economic benefits.
China’s positive balance of payments account with the United States is due to the heavy purchase of goods and services U. S. businesses have contracted out to China whose wages are low, worker’s benefits are slim or none and quality control is not up to U.S. standards. Thousands of products have had to be recalled from store shelves due to poor workmanship, toxic materials, and foreign substances in goods not acceptable to U.S. customers.
United States citizens should realize that as Chinese citizens enjoy a higher level of living, which many Americans would support. They consume a more varied diet of red meat, vegetables, and fruit. In order to produce these foods, land must be taken out of the production of rice and particularly wheat. In that they consume more than they produce, they enter the world market to purchase wheat. This competition for wheat increases its price and therefore increases the cost of wheat products such as bread and cereal on America’s grocery shelves.
The Jakota Triangle (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) is a region of great cities, huge consumption of raw materials, vast exports, and global financial influences. Both increased cooperation and competition in these activities influence the U.S. economy.
PROBLEMS AND PROSPECTS
A major problem in many nations is the lack of good accessibility to the rich natural resources they possess. The best example of this is Russia and the wealth of resources in Siberia, while a smaller nation that has this problem is Afghanistan. Reasons for this lack of access include distance and climate barriers as well as unstable economic and political conditions.
China is experiencing a problem as it tries to maintain dictatorial control over it’s economy and adopt western technology which requires easy access to data. This is especially difficult as it attempts to host the 2008 Olympic Games in and around Beijing which encourages political and economic openness.
Conflicts over the control of many East Asian islands in the Sea of Japan, and the East and South China Seas could become violent because of the existence of petroleum deposits and fishing rights. These potential conflicts involve mainly China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Sovereignty over Taiwan is not as critical as it has been over the last sixty years because China and Taiwan are increasing their economic connections and the United Nations is not likely to accept Taiwan as a member.
Economic mismanagement and corruption are not uncommon in most Asian countries and therefore, they are kept from their great potential which could be achieved due to immense human and natural resources.
In the early twenty-first century there are economic, political, religious, power shifts that have world-wide significance. The Iraq/Afghanistan war is extremely complex; Russia is striving to regain power lost when the Soviet Union broke up; Russia is also trying to stop devolutionary trends in several republics; China is rapidly growing as a world power while embracing some aspects of both democracy and dictatorship; several nations share this struggle; Sri Lanka continues to be hurt by civil war, again of a religious nature; in addition, natural disasters challenge this continent. This is a long, though incomplete, list of problems and challenges that add to Asia’s geographic character.
To adequately react to these many situations, Americans must be keenly aware of the geography of Asia and how our actions, or inactions, impact the cultural (political) landscape. Unfortunately, United States, citizens and leaders alike, do not have an adequate understanding of the geography of Asia or, for that matter, the other continents of the world, to provide the leadership that might be expected of the strongest nation in the world.