The last powerful intellectual push for pan-Asianism was promoted nearly a century ago by Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali Nobel laureate. He was rapturously received on tours in China and Japan, where he urged people to counter Western imperial might and material with sacrifice and an Asian spiritualism.
The suspicion lingers that Asia is a Western construct. Yet the search for an Asian identity is growing. It forms the backdrop to the annual East Asia Summit, held this year in Thailand from April 10th, grouping the ten South-East Asian countries with not just their partners in China, Japan and South Korea but India, Australia and New Zealand as well. The powerful impulse for co-operation is materialism based on rapid economic development: the antithesis of Tagore’s invocation. Japan raced down this path to prosperity 150 years ago. At the turn of this century, it looked as though China would have the field pretty much to itself, having brought 250m out of poverty since its autarky ended in 1978. But India was also throwing off many self-imposed shackles, and has since thrust itself forward.