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.