Country Guides

Bill Fisher, a career diplomat and most recently Australia's ambassador to Canada, always had a large globe of the world in his office. A visitor will sometimes comment that the globe is turned upside down, and Fisher will say, "Not at all. Australia is always on top." This remark says a lot about the ebullient Australians, those fun-loving, competitive, and often raucous “blokes” who live in "the Land of Wonder, the Land Down Under," as Australia is described in some of its tourist advertising.

Looking at a map of Bangladesh, the country looks like it lies in the jaws of a big tiger, the tiger being India, which surrounds Bangladesh except for the Bay of Bengal to the south and a rather short border with Myanmar to the southeast. But the tiger is friendly. It is a Bengal tiger, the national animal of both India and Bangladesh.

The national flag of Cambodia – as national flags often do – gives a sense of the character of the country. In the center of Cambodia’s flag is an image of the temple Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex in the world, built in the early 12th Century by King Suryavarman II, then king of the Khmer Empire. (Angkor Wat means “City of Temples” in the Khmer language, Cambodia’s official language and the language of 95 percent of its people.) The temple, which served as Suryavarman’s state temple and ultimately as his mausoleum, has survived centuries of neglect and national chaos.

The greatest offense one can commit in communicating with a Canadian is to confuse him or her with an American. Canadians do actually like Americans, but they dislike the incessant, pervasive influences that emanate from their neighbor to the south. Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said, "Living next to the United States is like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt." American culture and events fill their airwaves; "acid rain" from American industrial centers pollute their forests; American products dominate their shelf space.

Many will remember the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Thousands of dancers and acrobats performed wonderfully coordinated and artistic routines. The ceremonies were an apt tribute to the Games and to China’s quest for international recognition.

An old Hong Kong proverb goes: “Register a business in the morning. Open in the afternoon. Have a profit by nightfall.” New Yorkers who do business in Hong Kong, accustomed to “the New York minute,” have come to know “the Hong Kong second.” Everything happens fast in Hong Kong.

Ganesha – the Lord of all Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles in the pantheon of gods of the Hindu religion, the religion of 80 percent of India’s population – is on the minds on Indians these days. Ganesha is the elephant-headed god who gives support and encouragement to new undertakings and is a source of strength in times of rapid and uncertain change. In a rapidly globalizing world economy, those times are now.

Geographically, Indonesia is vast. It stretches over 3,200 miles east to west and over 1,100 miles north to south, similar to that of Australia or the continental United States. It is the largest of the Southeast Asia countries, rich in natural resources, and is the largest country in the world composed wholly of islands, consisting of 17,508 islands, about 6,000 of them inhabited.

The mention of Japan conjures up an image of the Samurai warrior in the minds of many people around the world. Those highly skilled and disciplined fighters, who served as the faithful military of Japan’s feudal lords starting around 700 A.D. and until their decline in the 1800s, have been a symbol of Japan’s fighting spirit for decades, a favorite subject of novels, movies and television – and in recent years of Nintendo’s popular video game, Samurai Warriors.

The Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, were the tallest buildings in the world from their completion in 1998 until 2004, when Taiwan’s Taipei 101 skyscraper captured the honor. Nonetheless, they remain the tallest twin towers in the world, and they stand as an unintended symbol of Malaysia’s economic power structure – an alliance of a government dominated by its ethnic Malay and an economy dominated by its ethnic Chinese. These two – the Malay government and the Chinese business community – are the real Twin Towers of Malaysia.

The most dramatic changes in Asia are occurring in Myanmar. It is a country that in 2011 turned from stagnation and repression to growth and liberation. After elections in 2010 that brought a new government administration to power, an avalanche of new policies and initiatives have breathed life into this resource-rich country that lies in the center of the region, bordered by China, India, Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand.

New Zealand is known for its lush beauty and its abundant agricultural and dairy production — wool, meat, butter, Kiwi fruit, delicious apples, and all manner of wonderful produce. The land is New Zealand's principal resource, and the nation's character is strongly influenced by this close association of its people with the land: New Zealand is a nation of independent, self-sufficient, resourceful people.

Singapore is a small nation situated at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula, across the Strait of Singapore from Indonesia’s Sumatra island to the southwest. The nation consists of Singapore Island and some 57 smaller islands comprising a total of 269 square miles, less than Hong Kong and only about three times the size of Washington, DC, in the United States.

The Korean Peninsula developed a distinctive civilization during its early history owing in part to its relatively isolated geographic location. The character of its people also became distinctive over time as a result of repeated invasions by neighboring dynasties – China to the west, Russia to the north, and Japan to the East. Korea was a strategically located country with easy access to the sea. It was “the meat in the sandwich.”

It is hard to believe that the big, beautiful island known as Sri Lanka (meaning “resplendent island” in Sanskrit, pronounced “sree-LAHNG-kuh”), lying off the southeastern tip of India, is a country all in itself, and not just a tourist destination in a larger national entity. Its beautiful beaches, dramatic landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and fascinating wildlife – including herds of elephants – do indeed attract large numbers of tourists, but its strong economy in recent years is attracting commensurate attention of international economists and businesspeople. It is estimated that tourist arrivals, many being wealthy Europeans, topped 950,000 in 2012, bringing revenues in excess of US$1 billion.

The modern history of Taiwan (the Republic of China, or ROC) – as well as its economic future – is uniquely tied to China (the People’s Republic of China, or PRC).

A favorite expression of Thais is "Mai pen rai," meaning "Never mind; it doesn't matter; everything will be all right." Mai pen rai says much about the agreeable Thai temperament – and its economy. Indeed, for the past several decades, Thailand has boasted a strong and resilient economy that has quickly bounced back from numerous political, economic and natural disasters.

Like Indonesia, the Philippines is a nation consisting of a huge number of islands – just not as many. 7,107 instead of 17,508. With such a unique geographical makeup comes the many challenges of economic and political integration, communications, transportation, infrastructure-building, and governing. Yet the Philippines, like Indonesia, is the beneficiary of plentiful natural resources, a large, productive population of 104 million people, and a strategic location at the southeastern extremity of East Asia.

In contrast to the great nations of Asia, the United States is predominantly a country of recently arrived settlers from all over the world. Starting with the religious outcasts who arrived on its shores in 1620, and followed by waves of English, Irish, Europeans, black Africans (who arrived as slaves), and — more recently — Latin Americans and Asians, the United States has represented an open door to opportunity and a better life. Since 1884, the Statue of Liberty has stood at the entrance of New York harbor, welcoming large numbers of new arrivals.

One of the early names of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, was Thăng Long, meaning “Rising Dragon” in Vietnamese, an appropriate name for present day Vietnam itself. The name would not be apt for Vietnam during much of its history – centuries marked by war, occupation and economic decline – but this war-ravaged country may well be on the threshold of emerging as an economic star of The New Asia.