The Pacific: A Mediterranean in the Making?

By Blank, Paul W. | The Geographical Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

The Pacific: A Mediterranean in the Making?


Blank, Paul W., The Geographical Review


ABSTRACT. This article examines the parallels between the developing Pacific Basin and the historical Mediterranean Basin. Humankind's expanding reach in transportation and communication technologies now makes it possible to integrate a basin the size of the Pacific. The Mediterranean provides some insight into the processes involved. Topics include questions of hegemony, "mirror cities" that interact with each other across the basins, and the dynamic tension between cosmopolitanism and localism. Keywords: hegemony, Mediterranean, mirror cities, Pacific, postmodern Hellenism.

The arrival of the "Pacific Century" has been proclaimed repeatedly in the popular press and the academy alike. A variety of factors contribute to the current wave of enthusiasm for and interest in the Pacific. United States population movements to the West Coast, with its Pacific orientation, have accelerated since World War II. The rise of Japan as an economic superpower, the dynamism of countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore (referred to in the 1980s as the "Asian Tigers" because of their aggressive economic policies), and, most recently, the emergence of China as a major player in the international economy are heralded as harbingers of an integrated, Pacific-centered society and economy.

The concept of "integration" is a slippery one, subject to a variety of interpretations. One useful definition is that proposed by Jerry Bentley, who describes it as "a historical process that unfolds when interactions influence the development of societies by bringing about divisions of labor and facilitating commercial, biological, and cultural exchanges" (Bentley 1998, 4). Based on these criteria, the Pacific Basin does seem to be experiencing integration on a grand scale. Products designed by a firm in Silicon Valley can be manufactured immediately in its offshore facilities in coastal China or Malaysia. Multilateral direct and indirect investments have become widespread throughout the basin. Cultural integration has accompanied economic integration. Peru now has a president of Japanese extraction, and in the United States the governor of the state of Washington is American-born Chinese.

In 1980, for the first time, the value of transpacific commerce outweighed that of transatlantic commerce. The 1987 stock market crash and recovery hinged as heavily on traders in Tokyo and Hong Kong as it did on their counterparts in New York and London. Although the Asian financial crisis dampened the enthusiasm of some commentators (Warner, Engardio, and Peterson 1999), long-term trends reveal rising levels of production, consumption, and trade throughout the Pacific world. Is a new cultural and economic synthesis in the making?

Historical precedents exist for the integration of sea and ocean basins. The Atlantic Ocean saw the emergence of a cohesive economic system based on the exchange of slaves, cash, and commodities as early as the sixteenth century (Gilroy 1993; Conniff and Davis 1994; Curtin 1998). Even earlier, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Basin were scenes of significant cultural and economic interaction (Chaudhuri 1985; Hall 1985; Hourani 1995; Wang 1998).

Of all the world's seas and oceans, the one with the longest history of human interaction and cross-cultural exchange is the Mediterranean. Recent evidence suggests that the Mediterranean witnessed large-scale trade, migration, and interaction as early as the third millennium B.C.E. (Rowlands, Larsen, and Kristiansen 1987; Gasson 1991). Mediterranean integration reached its zenith under the Roman Empire, when it experienced political unification for the first and last time (Pounds 1973; Smith 1978). Even after the Roman Empire, the Mediterranean remained a vibrant venue of cultural and economic interaction (Semple 1931; Braudel 1976).

The longevity of the Mediterranean's history of integration makes it the most appropriate candidate for comparison with the emerging Pacific in spite of the vast difference in physical size. …

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