The ability of seven state-of-the-art chemistry–aerosol models to reproduce distributions of tropospheric ozone and its precursors, as well as aerosols over eastern Asia in summer 2008, is evaluated. The study focuses on the performance of models used to assess impacts of pollutants on climate and air quality as part of the EU ECLIPSE project. Models, run using the same ECLIPSE emissions, are compared over different spatial scales to in situ surface, vertical profiles and satellite data. Several rather clear biases are found between model results and observations, including overestimation of ozone at rural locations downwind of the main emission regions in China, as well as downwind over the Pacific. Several models produce too much ozone over polluted regions, which is then transported downwind. Analysis points to different factors related to the ability of models to simulate VOC-limited regimes over polluted regions and NOx limited regimes downwind. This may also be linked to biases compared to satellite NO2, indicating overestimation of NO2 over and to the north of the northern China Plain emission region. On the other hand, model NO2 is too low to the south and west of this region and over South Korea/Japan. Overestimation of ozone is linked to systematic underestimation of CO particularly at rural sites and downwind of the main Chinese emission regions. This is likely to be due to enhanced destruction of CO by OH. Overestimation of Asian ozone and its transport downwind implies that radiative forcing from this source may be overestimated. Model-observation discrepancies over Beijing do not appear to be due to emission controls linked to the Olympic Games in summer 2008. With regard to aerosols, most models reproduce the satellite-derived AOD patterns over eastern China. Our study nevertheless reveals an overestimation of ECLIPSE model mean surface BC and sulphate aerosols in urban China in summer 2008. The effect of the short-term emission mitigation in Beijing is too weak to explain the differences between the models. Our results rather point to an overestimation of SO2 emissions, in particular, close to the surface in Chinese urban areas. However, we also identify a clear underestimation of aerosol concentrations over northern India, suggesting that the rapid recent growth of emissions in India, as well as their spatial extension, is underestimated in emission inventories. Model deficiencies in the representation of pollution accumulation due to the Indian monsoon may also be playing a role. Comparison with vertical aerosol lidar measurements highlights a general underestimation of scattering aerosols in the boundary layer associated with overestimation in the free troposphere pointing to modelled aerosol lifetimes that are too long. This is likely linked to too strong vertical transport and/or insufficient deposition efficiency during transport or export from the boundary layer, rather than chemical processing (in the case of sulphate aerosols). Underestimation of sulphate in the boundary layer implies potentially large errors in simulated aerosol–cloud interactions, via impacts on boundary-layer clouds. This evaluation has important implications for accurate assessment of air pollutants on regional air quality and global climate based on global model calculations. Ideally, models should be run at higher resolution over source regions to better simulate urban–rural pollutant gradients and/or chemical regimes, and also to better resolve pollutant processing and loss by wet deposition as well as vertical transport. Discrepancies in vertical distributions require further quantification and improvement since these are a key factor in the determination of radiative forcing from short-lived pollutants.