The phrase "sustainable development" appears increasingly in national policies in Asian countries and there are many successful 'sustainability experiments' documented at local level throughout the region. We explore why, despite the efforts made at the national level and the good practices at local level, underlying trends are away from sustainability. Drawing on the multi-level perspective on system innovation, we argue that linkages between different levels in socio-technical systems are critical to explaining the emergence of sustainable development pathways. The absence of these linkages in many Asian contexts is an important factor obstructing sustainability transitions in Asia. We argue that while the importance of vertical linkages is recognized and theorized in the multi-level perspective, the horizontal and the temporal dimensions are under-explored. We develop a set of propositions for exploring linkages in socio-technical systems, supporting these with empirical examples from the region. © 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.