Asia (ā´zhə), the world's largest continent, 17,139,000 sq mi (44,390,000 sq km), with about 3.3 billion people, nearly three fifths of the world's total population.
Asia's border with Europe—which, geographically, may be regarded as a peninsula of the Eurasian landmass—lies approximately along the Urals, the Ural River, the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus, the Black Sea, the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, and the Aegean Sea. The connection of Asia with Africa is broken only by the Suez Canal between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. In the far northeast of Asia, Siberia is separated from North America by the Bering Strait. The continent of Asia is washed on the S by the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal; on the E by the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, and Bering Sea; and on the N by the Arctic Ocean.
Geology and Geography
Geologically, Asia consists of ancient Precambrian landmasses—the Arabian and Indian peninsulas in the south and the central Siberian plateau in the north—enclosing a central zone of folded ridges. In accordance with this underlying structure, Asia falls into the following major physiographic structures: the northern lowlands covering W central Asia and most of Siberia; the vast central highland zone of high plateaus, rising to c.15,000 ft (4,570 m) in Tibet in China and enclosed by some of the world's greatest mountain ranges (the Himalayas, the Karakorum, the Kunlun, the Tian Shan, and the Hindu Kush); the southern peninsular plateaus of India and Arabia, merging, respectively, into the Ganges and Tigris-Euphrates plains; and the lowlands of E Asia, especially in China, which are separated by mountain spurs of the central highland zone. Mt. Everest (29,029 ft/8,848 m), in Nepal, is the world's highest peak; the Dead Sea (1,312 ft/400 m below sea level) is the world's lowest point. Great peninsulas extend out from the mainland, dividing the oceans into seas and bays, many of them protected by Asia's numerous offshore islands. Asia's rivers, among the longest in the world, generally rise in the high plateaus and break through the great chains toward the peripheral lowlands. They include the Ob-Irtysh, the Yenisei-Argana, and Lena of Siberia; the Amur-Argun, Huang He, Chang (Yangtze), Xi, Mekong, Thanlwin, and Ayeyarwady of E and SE Asia; and the Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, and Tigris-Euphrates of S and SW Asia. Central Asia has vast areas of interior drainage, including the Amu Darya, Syr Darya, Ili, and Tarim rivers, which empty into inland lakes or disappear into desert sands. Lake Baykal and Lake Balkash are among the world's largest lakes. Climatically, the continent ranges through all extremes, from torrid heat to arctic cold and from torrential rains (the product of monsoons) to extreme aridity (as in the Tarim Basin).
Asia can be divided into six regions, each possessing distinctive physical, cultural, economic, and political characteristics. Southwest Asia (Iran; Turkey, in Asia Minor; and the nations of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian peninsula or Arabia), long a strategic crossroad, is characterized by an arid climate and irrigated agriculture, great petroleum reserves, and the predominance of Islam. South Asia (Afghanistan and the nations of the Indian subcontinent) is isolated from the rest of Asia by great mountain barriers. Southeast Asia (the nations of the southeastern peninsula and the Malay Archipelago) is characterized by monsoon climate, maritime orientation, the fusion of Indian and Chinese cultures, and a great diversity of ethnic groups, languages, religions, and politics. East Asia (China, Mongolia, Korea, and the islands of Taiwan and Japan) is located in the mid-latitudes on the Pacific Ocean, and is characterized by cultures strongly influenced by civilizations of the Huang He and Chang (Yangtze) river systems. It forms the most industrialized region of Asia. Russian Asia (in the northern third of the continent) consists of the vast region of Siberia and the Russian Far East. In the center of the continent is Central Asia, formed of a set of independent former republics of the Soviet Union. This region is characterized by desert conditions and irrigated agriculture, with ancient traditions of nomadic herding.
Population, Culture, and Economy
The distribution of Asia's huge population is governed by climate and topography, with the monsoons and the fertile alluvial plains determining the areas of greatest density. Such are the Ganges plains of India and the Chang (Yangtze) and northern plains of China, the small alluvial plains of Japan, and the fertile volcanic soils of the Malay Archipelago. Urbanization is greatest in the industrialized regions of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, but huge urban centers are to be found throughout the continent.
Almost two thirds of Asia's indigenous population is of Mongolic stock. Major religions are Hinduism (in India); Theravada Buddhism (in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos); Lamaism, or Tibetan Buddhism (in Mongolia and China, particularly Tibet); East Asian Buddhism (in China and Korea, mixed with Confucianism, shamanism, and Taoism; in Japan mixed with Shinto and Confucianism); Islam (in SW and S Asia, W central Asia, and Indonesia); and Catholicism (in the Philippines, East Timor, and Vietnam).
Subsistence hunting and fishing economies prevail in the forest regions of N and S Asia, and nomadic pastoralism in the central and southwestern regions, while industrial complexes and intensive rice cultivation are found in the coastal plains and rivers of S and E Asia. Because of extremes in climate and topography, less than 10% of Asia is under cultivation. Rice, by far the most important food crop, is grown for local consumption in the heavily populated countries (e.g., China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Japan), while countries with smaller populations (Thailand, Vietnam, and Pakistan) are generally rice exporters. Other important crops are wheat, soybeans, peanuts, sugarcane, cotton, jute, silk, rubber, tea, and coconuts.
Although Asia's economy is predominantly agricultural, regions where power facilities, trained labor, modern transport, and access to raw materials are available have developed industrially. Japan, China, Russian Asia, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Israel are distinguished for their industrialization. China and India are making considerable strides in this direction. The most spectacular industrialization has occurred in Japan and the "Four Little Dragons" —Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The economies of Thailand, Indonesia, and South China are booming thanks to Japanese investment in plants and to cheap indigenous labor. The development of railroads is greatest in the industrialized countries, with Japan, India, China, and Russian Asia having the greatest track mileage.
Also contributing greatly to the income of many Asian countries are vital mineral exports—petroleum in SW Asia, Russian Asia, and Indonesia and tin in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Asia's other valuable mineral exports include manganese from India and chromite from Turkey and the Philippines; China produces great amounts of tungsten, antimony, coal, and oil.
Outline of History
Asia was the home of some of the world's oldest civilizations. The empires of Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Media, and Persia and the civilizations of Islam flourished in SW Asia, while in the east the ancient civilizations of India, China, and Japan prospered. Later, nomadic tribes (Huns, Mongols, and Turks) in N and central Asia established great empires and gave rise to great westward migration. Their tribal, military-state organizations reached their highest form in the 13th–14th cent. under the Mongols, whose court was visited by early European travelers, notably the Italian Marco Polo.
The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama reached India by sea in 1498, beginning the era of European imperialism in Asia. In N Asia Russian Cossacks crossed Siberia and reached the Pacific by 1640. With the formation of English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese trading companies in the 17th cent., great trade rivalry developed along the coasts of India, SE Asia, and China and resulted in increasing European control of Asian lands. By exploiting local disputes and utilizing a technological edge brought on by the industrial revolution, European powers extended political control over first the Indian subcontinent, then SW and SE Asia. European pressure opened China and Japan to trade. World War I led to a weakening of European stature in Asia, and the Wilson doctrine of self-determination inspired many nationalist and revolutionary movements.
World War II and the conflicts of its aftermath hit Asia heavily. In the postwar years, the center of conflict in international affairs tended to shift from Europe, the focus of both world wars, to Asia, where the decolonization process and the emergence of the cold war resulted in many smaller wars and unstable nations. The Arab-Israeli Wars, the Korean War, and the emergence of Communist governments in China, North Korea, and North Vietnam were among the events that heightened tensions in Asia. In the 1950s the Western powers built up military alliances (the Baghdad Pact—later the Central Treaty Organization—in the Middle East, and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization [SEATO]) to counter the threat of Soviet and Chinese domination of Asia. In the 1960s, however, the Sino-Soviet rift reduced the possibility of joint Communist efforts in Asia.
At the end of World War II the United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands were still major forces in Asia; but in the postwar period India, Japan, China, Indonesia, and other Asian nations sought a more independent role on the world scene. In the 1960s and 70s the British decision to withdraw "east of Suez" and the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War foreshadowed new power alignments in the area. China's growing strength and a Soviet drive to expand relations with Asian states (particularly India and the Middle East Arab nations) polarized perceptions of Asian instability as a contest between pro-Communist and anti-Communist powers.
Other forces, however, were also shaping Asia in the 1970s and 80s. Constant high population growth left many nations struggling with chronic poverty, inadequate health care, a largely underemployed workforce, and rapid degradation of environmentally sensitive areas. Nations with powerful militaries—Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, China, Vietnam, and Indonesia—invaded weakly guarded neighbors and fought low-level wars against one another. The former Euro-American–dominated world economic order received rude shocks from the Middle East–led oil embargo crises of 1973–74 and 1979 and the economic strength of Japan and the "Little Dragons." As conflicts with their origins in ethnic self-determination and perceived inequalities of borders ground on in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Myanmar, and Tibet, a new force, Islamic fundamentalism, swept to power in Iran in 1979 and threatened secular governments throughout S and SW Asia; fundamentalists gained the upper hand in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, an event in part triggered by its failed invasion of Afghanistan, led to the evaporation of the cold war polarization and to the birth of a new group of independent nations in Asia's center. In the 1990s, China emerged as a growing economic giant, but the booming economies of SE Asia suffered setbacks in the late 1990s. In Indonesia economic collapse led to the downfall of Suharto and the beginning of greater democracy as well as demands for independence or autonomy, particularly in East Timor, Aceh, and Papua. The 1990s also saw the gradual emergence of peace between a number of former combatants in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
See D. Stamp, Asia: A Regional Geography (1967); G. B. Cressey, Asia's Lands and Peoples (1968); T. Welty, The Asians (1984); V. Ramahappa, Modern Asia (1985); C. Pullapilly and E. J. Van Kley, ed., Asia and the West (1986); N. Nielson, Religions in Asia (1988); R. A. Scalapino et al., ed., Asian Economic Development (1988); L. A. Ziring and D. G. Dickinson, ed., Asian Security Issues (1988); J. Weiss, The Asian Century (1989).