From China and Japan to South Korea and North Korea, there are six countries in East Asia (including Taiwan); here’s everything you need to know!

During my first university summer break I had the unique opportunity to visit China. I was tasked with teaching English to high school students not much younger than I was, and with no training and little direction, I quickly found myself well out my depth. This being the People’s Republic of China (i.e. mainland China), I was supposed to avoid all talk of politics in the classroom, but it was soon apparent that China and I had diverging views on Taiwan.

This was the first time in my life that I really had culture shock, and it was largely because I was exposed to differing world views on geopolitics. My bubble was burst, and in the classroom, as students debated the sovereign status of the ‘Republic of China’ (i.e. Taiwan) I feared the abrupt interruption of the secret police.

That didn’t happen, but the classroom antics have had me wondering ever since about the geopolitical makeup of East Asia. This was further compounded by later visits to both North Korea and South Korea, where the question of sovereignty is the spark that could lead to all-out war. Then you have Mongolia, sandwiched between China and Russia – and is Russia Asian or European anyway?

In this article, I explore the common narratives and competing views on how many countries there are in East Asia. Keep reading, as I define the region and explore why there are different counts of the number of nations.

How many countries are in East Asia?

East Asia is a region encompassing the eastern part of the Asian continent and the adjacent islands in the Pacific Ocean. The region extends from the vast deserts and steppes of Mongolia in the north down to the densely populated coastal areas of China’s eastern seaboard.

It includes the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago, which are significant in terms of both their strategic locations and their distinctive geographic profiles. I believe the number of countries in East Asia should number six, a figure which includes the following nations:

  • China
  • Japan
  • Mongolia
  • North Korea
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan

This list includes both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan), which can cause contention in certain geopolitical circles (namely, the classes I was teaching when on my summer break in China!). Taiwan’s soverign status is a matter of dispute, as the ‘country’ is no longer a member of the United Nations. The vast majority of UN members recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC), rather than Taiwan, largely due to the ‘One-China‘ policy which posits that only one country can exist under the name of China.

The soverign status of Taiwan is therefore disputed, however, given the ‘country’ operates under an independent government and fulfills the criteria of the Montevideo Convention, I would consider it to be a nation in its own right. While others might say there are five countries in East Asia, including Taiwan brings this number to a round six.

How many countries in East Asia
Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

Read more: How Many Countries in Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

Are there broader definitions of East Asia?

But what about Russia, I hear you ask? Or Vietnam? And what about Hong Kong? The definition of East Asia can vary depending on the context, and besides the generally acknowledged six countries (China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan), other territories and regions (including China’s Special Administrative Regions) are sometimes considered part of East Asia due to geographical, cultural, or political reasons.

Broader definitions of East Asia might also include:

  • Hong Kong and Macau: Both are Special Administrative Regions of China and have distinct historical and cultural ties to the region. Hong Kong and Macau are typically considered to be part of wider China, however.
  • Russian Far East: A part of Russia located east of Siberia; this area has historical and geographical ties to East Asia. However, Russia is typically classified as a European rather than an Asian country.
  • Parts of Southeast Asia: Regions bordering East Asia, like northern Vietnam, might be included in broader definitions due to cultural and historical linkages. This is rare, as Vietnam is considered to be in Southeast Asia rather than East Asia.

The competing deinfitions highlight the importance of political interactions in East Asia, which are shaped by historical conflicts, current security concerns, economic partnerships and extensive trade relations. The region’s stability is crucial to global trade, particularly with the presence of major shipping lanes and economic hubs. East Asia’s political importance is underscored by its role in international organisations and alliances, as well as ongoing tensions in areas like the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula.

North Korean DMZ Travel
The view towards South Korea across the DMZ from North Korea.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in the Middle East? Everything You Need to Know.

Are there territories and dependencies in East Asia?

In addition to the potential inclusions above , there are territories and dependencies in East Asia which have certain degrees of autonomy. Here are the major examples:

  • Hong Kong and Macau: These are Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of China. While they are part of China, they have a high degree of autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems‘ principle, which allows them to maintain separate legal, economic and political systems.
  • Inner Mongolia: Although part of China, Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region with a significant Mongolian ethnic minority. It has its own regional government and a degree of self-governance.
  • Ryukyu Islands: These islands are part of Japan and include Okinawa Prefecture. While not considered dependencies in the traditional sense, they have distinct cultural and historical significance within Japan.
How many countries in East Asia
Hong Kong, one of China’s Special Administrative Regions.

Read more: How Many Countries in Southeast Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

A brief history of East Asia

The history of East Asia is shaped by ancient civilizations, imperial dynasties and modern geopolitical tensions. Here’s an overview of key historical developments to help you understand the current makeup of the region:

Ancient Civilizations

East Asia is home to some of the world’s earliest civilizations. China, with its ancient dynasties like the Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Tang and Ming, boasts a continuous history spanning thousands of years. Ancient Chinese civilization made significant contributions to philosophy, science, literature, and governance. Similarly, Japan has a history dating back to the Jomon and Yayoi periods, with early influences from China and Korea.

Imperial Era

East Asia saw the rise of powerful imperial dynasties, such as the Han and Tang in China and the Yamato in Japan. These dynasties expanded their territories, centralized their governments, and promoted cultural and economic development. The imperial era also saw the spread of Buddhism from India to East Asia, profoundly influencing the region’s religious and cultural landscape.

Feudalism and Isolation

During the medieval period, East Asia experienced feudalism and isolationism. In Japan, the feudal era saw the rise of the samurai class and the shogunate system. China also experienced periods of feudalism, with powerful warlords vying for control. Korea, meanwhile, was heavily influenced by the Chinese Confucian system and maintained a tributary relationship with China.

Colonialism and Modernisation

In the 19th century, East Asia encountered Western colonialism and imperialism. China endured the humiliation of the Opium Wars and the imposition of unequal treaties. Japan, however, embarked on a path of modernisation and industrialisation, transforming itself into a regional power. Korea became a battleground for imperial ambitions, falling under Japanese control in 1910.

World War II and Post-War Reconstruction

World War II brought devastation to East Asia, with Japan’s aggressive expansion leading to widespread destruction and suffering. After the war, Japan underwent rapid reconstruction and emerged as a global economic powerhouse. The Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South Korea, leading to decades of tension and conflict. China underwent revolutionary change, with the Communist Party coming to power in 1949 under Mao Zedong.

Cold War and Economic Growth

During the Cold War, East Asia became a focal point of geopolitical competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. South Korea and Taiwan became staunch allies of the United States, while North Korea and China aligned with the Soviet bloc. Japan, meanwhile, experienced rapid economic growth and became a leading exporter of technology and manufactured goods.

Modern Challenges and Opportunities

Today, East Asia faces a range of challenges, including territorial disputes, nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, and demographic shifts. However, the region also enjoys immense economic prosperity and technological innovation. With its ancient traditions and dynamic modernity, East Asia continues to play a crucial role in shaping the global landscape.

The DMZ Spy Tour South Korea
The South Korean flag on a memorial near the DMZ.

Read more: How Many Countries in South Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

What’s the population of East Asia?

The population of East Asia, encompassing China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea and South Korea, collectively exceeds 1.6 billion people. China alone accounts for over 1.4 billion inhabitants, making it the most populous country not only in East Asia but globally. Japan and South Korea contribute significantly to the region’s population, with approximately 125 million and 51 million people, respectively.

Mongolia and North Korea have smaller populations, with around 3.3 million and 25 million residents, respectively. This demographic diversity reflects the region’s complex socio-economic dynamics and its role as a major driver of global population trends and urbanisation.

Photos From Pyongyang North Korea
Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Read more: How Many Countries in Central Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

So, how many countries are in East Asia?

So, while my fiery introduction to geopolitics during that fateful summer teaching in China taught me the value of differing world views, it still hasn’t shaken my commitment to Taiwan being a soverign nation that fulfils the criteria of the Montevideo Convention.

For this reason, I will insist that there are six countries in East Asia. If you believe Taiwan to be part of China, then the minimum country count in East Asia would be five, rather than six. This number could increase if you were also to include Hong Kong and Macaua, or Russia.

FAQ: How many countries are in East Asia?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic, ‘How many countries are in East Asia?’:

Q1: How many countries are traditionally included in East Asia?

A1: East Asia traditionally includes six countries: China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan.

Q2: What is the basis for including these countries in East Asia?

A2: These countries are included based on geographical proximity, shared historical ties, cultural similarities, and significant economic and political interactions. Their boundaries are largely defined by physical geographic features like the Gobi Desert, the Yellow Sea, and the Sea of Japan.

Q3: Does the definition of East Asia ever vary?

A3: While the definition of East Asia is relatively stable, some broader perspectives might include regions such as Taiwan and parts of Eastern Russia, depending on the context of cultural, political, or economic discussions.

Q4: Are there any significant geopolitical issues in East Asia?

A4: Yes, East Asia is a region of high geopolitical tension, including disputes over territories such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and North Korea’s nuclear program, which have significant implications for regional security.

Q5: How do the populations of these countries compare?

A5: China, with over 1.4 billion people, is the most populous, followed by Japan and then South Korea. North Korea and Mongolia have much smaller populations, with Mongolia being the least densely populated due to its vast land area.

Q6: What are the economic characteristics of East Asian countries?

A6: East Asia features some of the world’s largest economies, such as China and Japan. The region is known for its significant manufacturing output, technological advancements, and robust trade networks. South Korea and Japan are also noted for their high-tech industries and innovation.

Q7: What cultural connections exist between the countries in East Asia?

A7: The region shares several cultural traits, including influences from Confucianism and Buddhism. Historical exchanges, such as the spread of Chinese characters and philosophical ideas, have also contributed to a shared cultural heritage.