The North Sea of East Asia
Image by travel oriented on Wikimedia Commons

Innovation is often viewed as a mindset or something that can be stimulated with the right policies. However, it also has a clear geographical component. Many ancient cities were built alongside rivers. Today’s most innovative regions – Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, London, Dubai, Tel Aviv and Singapore – all look out over an ocean.

The proximity of open water stimulates entrepreneurship, lofty ambitions and risky ventures. In this series in the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad, our lead researcher Haroon Sheikh looks into the innovative strengths and developments in seven major coastal regions. This week’s edition is about the waters of Northeast Asia. Coming up next week: the waters of America.

The East China Sea is the port area of Asia’s industrial heart. Japan ruled supreme here for a long time, but South Korea and especially China have grown in prominence over the past decades. From the south, a chain of technological hubs was developed, primed for global dominance.

The East China Sea is Asia’s North Sea. Both seas form a transition between the continent and the ocean. Both have a few narrow passages and then expand in width, making them difficult to close off. Thirdly, both seas are dominated by a “large island:” Great Britain on the western edge of the immense Eurasian expanse and Japan in the east. There is also a major difference: innovation originated from the North Sea region at the start of our modern age, while the most innovative economies of today are found along the shores of the East China Sea.

The analogy between Great Britain and Japan can be taken even further. Both countries were early pioneers in their respective regions: Britain sparked the Industrial Revolution in Europe and Japan was the first Asian country to become industrialized. This role is tied to the islands’ geographic position. As island nations, they are used to new ideas coming from the mainland. Japan made use of Chinese ideas for centuries. When the Europeans invaded the region with their modern technology in the nineteenth century, it was relatively easy for the Japanese to adopt these innovations. This was much harder for the Chinese, even though they viewed themselves as the center of the world.

Another shared characteristic of Britain and Japan also ties into their isolation as islands: a deep-rooted belief in their own exceptionality. The term “continental” is synonymous with “backwards” in Britain. The British saw and see themselves as a people chosen to lead the world. Theresa May’s Global Britain harkens back to this sentiment – regardless of how misplaced or forced it may be.

Japan’s imperialism during the first half of the twentieth century was a brutal form of exceptionalism: they were chosen to lead Asia and ruled with a firm hand in China and Korea. A less violent form of this exceptionalism still exists today, for example in the “science” of nihonjiron, or “the study of the unicity of the Japanese people.” Another example is what the Japanese call the “Galapagos syndrome:” the phenomenon of a product developing in a completely different manner in Japan than elsewhere in the world. The term refers to the group of islands where Darwin discovered animal species that had evolved in unique ways as a result of their isolated existence.

Lost leadership

For a long time, Japan was the undisputed technological leader of Asia. During the eighties, even the Americans feared that Japan might surpass them. However, as a result of the bursting of an immense financial bubble in 1990, the ageing population and the tardy adoption of new digital technologies, Japan lost its prominent position. Today, the country has the largest national debt as a percentage of its GDP in the world and its economy relies largely on Japan’s competitive export. Therein also lies the hope for its economic future: export to Asian growth markets.

Another aspect of Japan’s strategy for the future is a maritime alliance. It is currently strengthening its ties to the United States, Great Britain, the Philippines and particularly India in order to create an alternative to the rising power of Chinese trade. Japan is also building its relationship with Taiwan, which is slowly shifting its focus from Beijing to Japan under the rule of the current government of President Tsai Ing-wen.

Korea started walking in Japan’s industrial footsteps in the sixties. While the north closed itself off from the world, the south adopted a global maritime strategy. Park Chung-hee, the architect of the Korean economic miracle, called this “state building through export.” Despite its small size, the country has spawned such multinational corporations as Samsung, LG, POSCO, Hyundai and KIA.

Half of the ten largest shipbuilders in the world are Korean, despite the fact that the sector saw some bankruptcies this past year. The port of Busan and the airport of Incheon are among the best infrastructural locations in the world. A city of the future is being developed in New Songdo, filled with smart solutions for mobility, communication and waste management.

Historically, the Chinese empire always maintained a strong focus on its hinterlands, particularly to counter the threat of nomadic tribes attacking from the Eurasian plains. The Great Wall is an embodiment of this fear. These land wars led to large armies, centralization and bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, China certainly has a maritime tradition of its own. Centuries ago, traders from Arabia and India already found their way to the port of Guangzhou. The Chinese themselves crossed the sea from the south for centuries. That is why many Southeast Asian countries have prosperous Chinese minorities and why Chinatowns can be found in major cities all over the world.

During the time of the Ming dynasty, Chinese maritime trade flourished. Between 1404 and 1422, the famous eunuch Zheng He sailed to Sumatra, Sri Lanka and the East-African coast aboard massive ships. However, an imperial ban on ships with more than two masts put an abrupt end to China’s maritime expansion in the year 1500, at a time when Europe’s was only just beginning.

River Elegy

Under Western pressure, China shifted its focus even further inwards. In the twentieth century, the communists built economic and political walls to keep out foreign invaders. However, after the death of Mao, China once again started looking across the water. This changing mentality – and the connection to the element of water – is depicted beautifully in a controversial documentary that aired on Chinese television in 1988: Heshang, or the River Elegy. This series sparked a fierce debate because it contained a strong attack on Chinese culture.

The titular river is the Yellow River, which is deeply ingrained in Chinese civilization. Its yellow color comes from mud and, for the makers of the documentary, it represents the pollution of the blue water and the Chinese maritime spirit. The documentary claims that China became conservative, isolationist, weak and lacking in dynamism as a result of its focus on land instead of water. All this is symbolized by the Great Wall. The final shot of the River Elegy is one of the Yellow River flowing into the blue waters of the East China Sea. This is a call for China to follow countries like the US and Japan and sail out onto the oceans. Since that time, every Chinese leader has further expanded the country’s maritime focus.

Deng Xiaoping, who opened China up to the rest of the world, found his inspiration among an overseas group of Chinese: the Singaporeans. It is said he saw the future of China there. He started in the south of China. First, Shenzhen was used as a cheap production site near Hong Kong. Later, the experiment was expanded to include the entire Pearl River Delta.

Under the influence of his successor, Jiang Zemin, the attention shifted north towards Shanghai, which is situated along the mouth of the Jiantsekiang. Opposite the historical Bund, the Pudong district transformed from swampland into a world-famous skyline over the course of a few decades.

The next leader of China, Hu Jintao, looked even further northward: towards Beijing along the shores of the famous Yellow River. The current leader, Xi Jinping, also has lofty ambitions for the water. The Maritime Silk Road is part of his Belt and Road Initiative (“BRI”), with which China is developing new trade routes all over the world.

A lot has changed since River Elegy. Whereas that documentary viewed the West as an example, the BRI relies on China’s own maritime history: on the travels of the eunuch Zheng He, for example.

Contrary to the eighties, the China of today is less wary of its own traditions. It looks towards the future with confidence.

All along the shores of the East China Sea, innovative hubs have developed in relatively unknown metropolises such as Guangzhou, Tianjin and Suzhou. Shenzhen has grown from a cheap production site to the Chinese hardware equivalent of Silicon Valley. Last year, Xi Jinping announced the development of the new city of Xiongan, located 100 kilometers to the southwest of Beijing, which is to relieve some of the pressure on the overcrowded capital. However, China’s most innovative breeding grounds of the future are found along the coastlines of the East China Sea.

To read the article in Dutch, click here.

About the author
Haroon Sheikh (37) supervises FreedomLab Thinktank, works as a researcher at the investment company Dasym and is part of the VU’s Centrum Ethos as a philosopher.

He earned his doctoral degree with research into the influence of old traditions on modern societies and published two books: De Opkomst van het Oosten and Embedding Technopolis.
A book about new seaside powers will appear in 2018, based on these features in FD Morgen.