Asia, the largest of the earth’s seven continents, accounts for almost a third of the earth’s land and around 60% of the population. Lying almost entirely in the Northern Hemisphere, Asia covers an estimated 44,391,000 square kilometres, including outlying islands. In 2000 the population of Asia was estimated to be 3.73 billion.
Asia is bounded on the North by the Arctic Ocean, on the South by the Indian Ocean, on the East by the Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean, and on the Southwest by the Red and Mediterranean seas. South of the mainland lie Sri Lanka and smaller island groups such as the Maldives and the Addaman and Nicobar islands. To the Southeast of the continent is a collection of islands and archipelagos, which include the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines.
Asia is traditionally divided into five major realms: East Asia, which includes China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan; Southeast Asia, which includes Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines; South Asia, which includes India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, and Bhutan; Southwest Asia, which includes Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other states of the Arabian Peninsula, and Russian Asia, which includes the states of Central Asia that were formerly part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). These states are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
International trade is extensive in some Asian countries, with Asia having 17 of the world’s top 50 exporters. The most import exporting centres are Japan, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, India, Iran, Turkey, Israel, the Philippines, and Oman.
Considerable trade takes place between Asian countries; in particular the export of raw material to Japan, while Japan in turn exports manufactured goods to other Asian markets. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates export oil. Hong Kong and Singapore re-export goods from China and Malaysia, while Indonesia and Malaysia are major traders in raw materials.
There are several organisations supporting economic development and the growth of trade among the Asian countries, e.g. The Asian Development Bank, which is based in Manila. The Asian Development Bank loans money to member countries for developmental purposes. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), which is based in Bangkok, assists with the co-ordination of the UN’s development agencies. Other important organisations are the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Asean member states have created an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), which commits them to significantly reducing trade barriers, such as quotas and tariffs, by early in the 21st century.
The CIS, formed in December 1991, initially co-ordinated economic and foreign policy, although the organisation’s roll has since diminished.
The Asian-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) was formed in 1989 to facilitate trade between North America, Oceania, and Asia. Member countries include Brunei, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Asia incorporates many different combinations of climate and vegetation. Across the Middle East, Central Asia, parts of Russian Asia, and the inner regions of China, subsistence livestock production is prevalent. Around coastal China, and most of South and Southeast Asia, subsistence crop production is the major form of agricultural activity. At different places throughout the region, and especially in Japan, Southeast Asia, the western parts of Russia, and some areas of the Middle East, commercial crop production takes place.
Central Asia and Russia produce wheat and other grains, cotton, and vegetables, while Southeast Asia and the southern parts of China and India are major rice-growing areas. Rubber trees and oil palm plantations are found in Malaysia and Indonesia, while India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia are famous for their tea plantations.
The continent of Asia is rich in mineral resources and energy resources. Petroleum and natural gas resources are found throughout most of Asia, with the greatest concentration occurring in the Persian Gulf, Indonesia, China, and the western Siberian Plain and on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Large offshore reserves exist off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, western India and China.
Siberia, China and India all have rich supplies of coal; especially the Shaanxi province in northern China, which contains in the region of 30% of China’s proven reserves. In spite of this enormous potential wealth, China needs to import coal because of the lack of infrastructure required to transport sufficient coal from the northern to the southern parts of the country.
Turkey is a major chromium producer, Malaysia is rich in tin and India is rich in iron and manganese ores. Indonesia has bauxite, while diamonds are found in Siberia, and sapphires and rubies occur in South and Southeast Asia. Other available mineral resources include gold, silver, uranium, copper, lead, and zinc.
The continent of Asia has a diverse population. Southeast Asia is densely populated, while the northern and interior regions, as well as parts of southwest Asia, has a low population density. The majority of the population in most Asian countries lives in rural communities, although urbanisation has proceeded rapidly in the last few decades. Countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are largely urbanised, while the Philippines and Malaysia also have large urban populations.
The most commonly spoken language in Asia is Chinese, with more than 1 billion people speaking Mandarin Chinese or one of its variants. Other languages spoken in the Southeast include Japanese, Korean, Thai, Malay, Khmer, Burmese, Lao and Vietnamese. In southern Asia people speak Urdu or Hindi, as well as Tamil and Telugu. In the southwest Arabic is the common language, although Hebrew and Persian are also spoken. Turkic languages are spoken in central Asia, while Russian is the principal language of Siberia and other parts of Russian Asia. English is becoming more widely used, and is an official government language in India.
The dominant religion in most countries of southwest Asia, as well as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia is Islam. Hinduism is the major religion of India and Java, while Buddhism is the major religion in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Confucianism is practised in China, Shinto in Japan and Christianity in Russia.
Asia continues to be an area rife with religious conflicts, namely: Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs in the Middle East, Fundamentalist vs. moderate Muslims in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan quarrelling over Kashmir, while in Southeast Asia the Moro people in the Philippines have an ongoing fight with the government. These conflicts contribute to a sense of insecurity across parts of the continent.
Illiteracy remains a problem across the continent, with illiteracy rates in countries such as Nepal, Pakistan, Yemen and Bangladesh being 50% or more.
The major diseases found across Asia include cholera, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, poliomyelitis, amoebic and bacillary dysentery and malaria. Acquired immuno deficiency syndrome (AIDS) has also become a growing threat in Asia, particularly in South and Southeast Asia.