The Different Paths to Modernization in the Nations of Southeast Asia, Essay Example

The world has changed significantly in the last century, as technology has led to advances in communication, travel, shipping and transportation, and numerous other aspects of contemporary life. The march towards modernization has moved at different speeds, and in different stages, in countries throughout the world. Theorists have made a number of efforts to explain and understand the processes by which different nations and regions undego modernization, and have further sought to understand the factors that influence and shape modernization. The aptly-named Modernization Theory posits that the process of modernization is, or at least should be similar for most nations, as the adoption of new technologies and processes affords each nation the same opportunities and possibilities. The modernization of Asian-Pacific nations in the 19th and 20th century, however, did not always fit neatly into the presupposed guidelines of modernization theory, as the growth and change of the economic and political situations and circumstances varied widely from one nation to the next. This paper will examines some of the ways that nations in this region embraced modernization, and how the practical manifestations of modernization in the region diverged or converged from one nation to the next.

The influence of the Western world on the region of Southeast Asia did not become as significant as it is today until somewhat recently. Nations throughout the region had contact in terms of trade and other activities for many years before the 19th and 20th centuries, but most of this contact was fairly limited. European interests as represented by Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish trading and shipping businesses were present in various nations in Southeast Asia well before the 19th century, but their influence was largely limited to trade and other maritime activities1. Even as late as the mid-19th century, England’s role in the region was primarily limited to the control of a few ports in places such as Singapore2. The contact between the West and the East would eventually reshape the entire Southeast Asian region, but for centuries the influence of the West was insignificant as compared to the political, economic, and cultural diversity that was seen in, and that guided the evolution and development of, the nations in that part of the world.

As the influence of the West in the nations of Southeast Asia continued to spread, the nations of the West sought to establish economic and political power in the region. While trade and shipping routes had been the primary means by which the nations of the West asserted themselves in the region for centuries, the 19th and 20th century saw the growth of the colonial influence as Western nations sought tighter control over the economic and political power in Southeast Asia3. The colonial governments of nations such as England that were established throughout the region attempted to enforce cultural and economic conformity, believing that bringing Western civilization and cultural practices to Southeast Asia was something that would not only benefit the nations of the West, but would benefit Asian peoples as well. This period of colonial expansion had “superficially homogenizing effects” on many nations in Southeast Asia, but these effects would eventually be “more than offset by the divergent policies pursued by the different imperial powers”4. The homogenization brought to the region by the West during the colonial era would leave many lasting effects, but during the 20th century, when the nations of Southeast Asia underwent sometimes-rapid modernization, the cultural, social, political, and economic differences among these nations would have significantly influential roles in determining how that modernization played out from one country to the next.

In the 18th century, Japan was one of the most powerful nations in the region, and by the 19th century it was beginning its process of industrialization. China, by comparison, was one of the last nations in the region to begin industrialization5. Not only was China late in embracing industrialization, it was also among the last of the countries in the region to recognize the potential value to be gained through industrialization and modernization. If Japan and China were at opposite ends of the industrialization spectrum, it is possible to understand why they were so different, and so far apart, by examining the relationship each nation had with the West. Japan was influenced early and significantly by Western nations, through exposure based in trade and other activities. As it moved to industrialize, Japan led the region and was for decades one of the most powerful nations in Southeast Asia. China, by contrast, had far less contact with the West in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and was therefore exposed to fewer Western influences6. This gave Japan an advantage over China for some time, and Japan would use this advantage to dominate parts of China at various times.

In the late 18th century, England was hoping to expand its economic interests in the region by opening up trade and diplomatic relations with China. A British delegation was sent to China in 1798 for the purpose of meeting with the emperor and establishing an economic and political connection between England and China7. The British sent an enormous ship filled with hundreds of delegates to China, with the intention of impressing the Chinese with the fruits of England’s industrial economy. The members of this delegation had to travel overland for months to finally reach the capital of China for a meeting with the emperor. Upon their arrival, however, the requests of the British to open up trade and establish a diplomatic British presence in China were denied by the emperor. The Chinese emperor was largely unimpressed by the technological and industrial advances of the British and other Western nations and claimed that there was no advantage for either country in establishing economic and political ties8. In short, the emperor believed that China had been and would continue to survive and succeed on its own.

The British delegation and government obviously viewed the situation differently, believing that not only was China failing to understand the opportunities industrialization would bring to the nation, but that its capitulation to British economic and political power was inevitable. It may have even been the case that had the Chinese emperor not turned the British away, its later relationships with England and with the West would have been smoother and more immediately beneficial to the Chinese. As it turned out, it was inevitable that England would establish trade policies with China, though these policies were generally geared towards the benefit of the British, and the concerns of the British were even enforced at gunpoint during the Opium wars9.

Although China may have lagged behind the rest of the region for a time in terms of modernization, by the late 20th century China grew into one of the most powerful economic and military forces in the world. Many of the cultural factors that were responsible for underpinning China’s early refusal to embrace modernization were the same forces that underpinned its eventual rise to dominance in the region. For millennia, China had been a nation that did not rely on interaction with other nations for survival and growth. The Chinese culture gave rise to advances in language, agriculture, and economic systems that were already well-established when other parts of the world were still in far earlier stages of development10. By the year 1000 the Chinese had developed fairly sophisticated agricultural technologies that allowed them to produce rice and other foods on a large scale. These developments served as the basis for a significant population explosion in China at a time when European nations were still living in the conditions associated with the Middle Ages.

Some of these aspects of Chinese culture meant that the nation was able to support this growing population, and had little need for involvement with the outside world. This was still the case centuries later, when the influence of the West was beginning to reshape other nations in Southeast Asia. Just as China had survived and thrived without the involvement of outside forces for centuries, it saw the contact from the West in the same way. Although the Chinese were slow to embrace industrialization and modernization, and would pay a heavy price for it for several decades, the forces that had allowed China to survive and function as an independent nation for so many centuries were the same forces that allowed it to eventually rise to a prominent position in the contemporary world.

While China was showing little interest in embracing modernization and industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries, Japan was taking a very different approach. The Japanese were among the first people in the region to move towards industrializing their economy, and they were for a time one of the most powerful nations in the region11. The Japanese were, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a heavily-militarized society, and they attacked several of their neighbors, including Korea and China, and occupied parts of both nations at different times12. By the early 20th century the Japanese dominated much of the region economically and militarily, and as several nations throughout the world became involved in World War II, the Japanese saw the U.S. as an enemy, even going so far as to declare war on the U.S. and attack the Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Japan’s defeat by the U.S. at the end of World War II would bring about significant and permanent changes to Japanese society and its political and economic systems. After the war, the U.S. occupied the nation of Japan while overseeing the reconstruction of the nation. The Japanese emperor, who had been viewed as a deity by the Japanese people, was forced to surrender to the U.S., which had an enormous impact on how the Japanese saw themselves and their own culture. The emperor had told the people of Japan that they would have to “endure the unendurable”13, though the occupation and rebuilding efforts led by the U.S. would actually serve to help Japan quickly industrialize and to catch up with much of the West in terms of modernization.

The Japanese people, who had long valued the role of the military in Japanese society, made a complete shift in their perception of militarization in the aftermath of the war. After the war, Japan rejected militarization and embraced the system of capitalism and economic cooperation that was bringing so many of the benefits of industrialization and modernization to the West14. Although Japan had been conquered and then occupied by the U.S., the Japanese people began to look to the U.S. and the West as a source of inspiration and an example of what Japan could become by embracing the cultural and economic systems of the West. This worked to the benefit of the U.S. and other Western nations as well. The rapid industrialization and modernization in the Western nations made it necessary to find and expand markets for the goods produced in Western factories, and also made it vital that new and expanding sources of raw materials became and remained available15. Despite Japan’s status as a conquered nation after World War II, the country took full advantage of the opportunities made available by the presence and influence of the U.S., and began a period of rapid reconstruction and development in the mid-20th century that would help it become a leading economic force in the region by the latter part of the century.

At the same time that Japan was willingly embracing the benefits of capitalism and developing its contemporary social and political systems along Western lines, the nation of China was following a very different path. Because it had failed to keep up with Japan and other nations in Southeast Asia as they began to modernize, China remained a fairly undeveloped nation for decades after these other nations had already begun to industrialize. China had, by the early 20th century, become heavily involved in trade with other nations, both from the region and from the West, but its economy remained primarily agricultural long after Japan and other nations were developing their industrial capacities. This left China in a vulnerable position, as the nation’s enormous population required significant agricultural output and economic activity to sustain it. While Japan was entering a period of relative prosperity after World War II, the Chinese were faced with enormous economic and political challenges.

It is hardly surprising, considering China’s lengthy history as a nation that survived without depending on trade or political interaction with other nations, that it would embrace different economic and political philosophies than those of Japan and other significant and influential nations16. The Communist revolution in China saw the nation retreat even further from the capitalist system that was bringing so many changes to an increasingly-Westernized world. As the 20th century neared the end, the Chinese government began to implement a number of economic reforms that would allow the country to benefit from some aspects of capitalism, while still maintaining strict governmental control over its economic and political sectors17.

If the industrialization and modernization in Southeast Asia is considered in the context of modernization theory, it is clear that there are significant aspects of the overall modernization in the region that do not fit that theoretical perspective. If the theory asserts that modernization should follow a similar path from one country to the next, it may only be applicable when those different countries have similar social, economic and political backgrounds. This could explain why many Western nations followed similar paths to modernization, while many nations in Southeast Asia did not. This does not refute the significance of modernization theory, but it does mean that the theory must be applied with the understanding that internal factors can play significant roles in terms of modernization, and as such these internal factors must also be considered when attempting to understand how different nations move from one stage of development to the next.


  1. Robert McMahon. The limits of empire: the United States and Southeast Asia since World War II. p. 2
  2. McMahon, p.2
  3. p.3
  4. , p.4
  5. Martin Jacques. When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, 2nd p.71
  6. Jacques, p.72
  7. , p.71
  8. , p.71
  9. , p.72
  10. , p.72
  11. McMahon, p.6
  12. James Fallows. Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System. 121
  13. Fallows, p.119
  14. , p.120
  15. , p.121
  16. Jeff Goodwin. No other way out: states and revolutionary movements, 1945-1991., p.102
  17. Jacques, p.97


Fallows, James. Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Goodwin, Jeff. 2001. No other way out: states and revolutionary movements, 1945-1991. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jacques, Martin. When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.

McMahon, Robert J. 1999. The limits of empire: the United States and Southeast Asia since World War II. New York: Columbia University Press.