Take out a map of the world: it’s impossible to miss the lines demarking nation states. The rupture, erasure and displacement of these lines fill history books, news bulletins and many a common room debate. However, the same consideration is not given to the colours tying nation-states into continents and regions.
By contrast, in the contemporary international system, the relevance of nation states is on the wane, and the significance of clusters bound together by geography has increased—terms such as the Middle East, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the European Union are commonplace in foreign policy discussions. In his 1983 book called Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson coined a term with the same name. Anderson argued that nations or communities are largely imagined, tied more so by language, culture and politics than by personal bonds between the residents of the country. Geographical regions are fast developing into Andersonian imagined communities with dense and entrenched inter-dependent economic, strategic and regulatory institutions. The genealogy of these constructions, that is the way in which these regional taxonomies came to be, becomes consequential—even if it is not often perceived to be so. Therefore, analysing the hidden power and the political significance of these physical and mental maps—or cartopolitics—is important for both the geo-political analyst and the cultural theorist.
In a 2013 article published in The American Interest—a foreign policy magazine—Rory Medcalf, an Australian strategist and scholar wrote about how the names given to various regions by imperialist regimes influenced the power these regions came to hold. He notes, “…Cartographic terms can have tangible effects. Material realities are what they are, but their meaning in terms of strategic interests and intentions is never self-explanatory. Those meanings, in turn expressed through symbols such as language and map-making, have a way of recursively shaping material realities and political choices.”
Medcalf suggests that the names given to regions have strategic, economic and institutional power. These regions, and the way in which they are defined for us in textbooks, the media and scholarship, command our imaginations by dictating how we construct particular associations while silencing others. This distorts our analysis and decisions. As Richard Heuer, a former Central Intelligence Agency veteran points out, analysts and strategists invariably use heuristics to simplify the overwhelming complexity inherent in global affairs.
Consider, for example, the case of Sri Lanka: historically classified as a South Asian state, the Sri Lanka of our imagination has been culturally, strategically and economically glued to the Indian hinterland. Although Sri Lanka can be thought of as either a South Asian state or an Indian Ocean one, the associations and images that our mind conjures in each case, seemingly sub-consciously, are quite different. One is perhaps the diversity, rich history, creaking bureaucracy and poverty of the Indian sub-continent, the other, sun-kissed beaches, global trade routes and geo-political jostling. The South Asian construct creates a imagined community comprising Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, while downplaying Sri Lanka’s historic community with the Arab trading states to the west, the Theravada Buddhist countries to the east and the south east Asian port cities of Penang, Malacca and Singapore.
At best, the current cartopolitical classification system is Eurocentric and largely the arbitrary product of imperial musings and negotiations. At worst, it is, as literary theorist Edward Said suggests in his book, Orientalism, a deliberate attempt to create conceptual structures that serve the interests of the powers that gave rise to them. The truth is probably somewhere in between: these maps, when created, were useful analytic devices for the imperial officers of the time. However, they may, or may not be, useful to contemporary policy-makers and scholars; particularly those in the global south who do not share the same concerns and priorities as their original cartographers.
In recent times, Sri Lanka has started to undergo a refashioning of its identity. The re-emergent Indian Ocean identity reflects Sri Lanka’s cosmopolitan, ocean-going and mercantile heritage, making its participation in global affairs—particularly commerce—natural and ordinary. But to the world’s investors, it also underscores that Sri Lanka’s distinctiveness from most of the Indian sub-continent and its location at the cross-roads of emerging markets for trade and travel. At least within the field of strategic studies, the country’s heritage as an Indian Ocean state is being revived and many decision-makers, such as the United States secretary of state, John Kerry, are becoming aware of the implications and opportunities this presents. Suddenly, Sri Lanka is not India’s heel or even its gateway—it is at the cross-roads of the emerging energy, trade and air routes, linking Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia and Australia.
As globalisation accelerates, the great powers of the twenty-first century have begun to focus more on what links than what divides sovereign nations. Resistance to existing heuristics and refashioning of the world’s cartopolitical regional architecture has become intrinsic to this exercise. China, India and the United States of America are recasting the post-imperial Asian map with new partnership frameworks. These include the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China’s proposed strategy to enhance connectivity and trade between Eurasian nations, a part of which is the proposed Maritime Silk Road (MSR), aimed at furthering collaboration between south east Asia, Oceania and East Africa; Project Mausam, India’s effort to reconnect with its ancient trading partners along the Indian Ocean, widely regarded as its answer to the MSR; and the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, the USA’s effort to better connect south and south east Asian nations. Each of these initiatives cuts across the traditional and almost-too-neat division of Asia into Middle East, south, central, east and south east Asia, replacing it with an overlapping set of classifications that is centered on the Indo-Pacific region, the Indian Ocean and the Silk Road.
Both the OBOR and Project Mausam encourage fluidity and ambiguity. This makes them more interesting to the policy-maker and the academic than other better-defined initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a USA-led trade agreement between Pacific Rim states that lowers trade barriers and creates common regulatory systems. These initiatives have only recently become a part of the global conversation, and with a little flesh on their bones, they could very well launch the formation of a new world order.
Interestingly, the shaping of these initiatives is not only in the hands of China, India or the USA; this fluidity creates opportunities for small states as well. The arbiters of the success or failure of these initiatives are as much the states along the silk and monsoon trade routes—Turkmenistan, Iran, Mauritius and Myanmar, for example—as are the countries that launched them.
For a country such as Sri Lanka, this new-found leverage is particularly interesting. Its location at the Indian Ocean’s crossroads gives it strategic and economic weight that translates into prominence in both MSR and Project Mausam plans. Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to sign-up for the MSR, and Presidential elections held early this year marked a foreign policy that restored the country’s ties with India and the recently-held general elections entrenched Sri Lanka’s revival of ties with India.
These schemes offer distinct value propositions, and the great powers are going out of their way to downplay the potential strategic implications of these schemes, highlighting the commercial and cultural benefits. Reality will have to at least resemble the rhetoric, so from an economic perspective, it makes sense for small states to sign on to both plans. Compared to India, China has the financial muscle and the centralised economic decision-making structure necessary to offer foreign direct investment and loans. On the other hand, for Sri Lanka, the physical proximity to India coupled with the prospect of joining Indian supply chains and enjoying market access is probably more enticing than an equivalent agreement with China.
Similarly, the cartopolitical benefits also differ: the MSR highlights Sri Lanka’s position on the east-west sea route, while Project Mausam’s aim to create an “Indian Ocean World” places Sri Lanka at the centre of what could be one of the twenty-first century’s defining economic, strategic and institutional frameworks. It would also mark the beginning of psychological associations that link Sri Lanka with the emerging east African and south-east Asian economies. In a press conference in Beijing, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera indicated that its involvement in these initiatives is likely to remain confined to the economic sphere. Under the current pragmatic and non-aligned foreign policy, Sri Lanka has indicated that it is willing to explore the MSR, and with newly restored ties with India, it is likely to do the same for Project Mausam.
Sri Lanka’s predicament is likely to be true of many states on the Indian Ocean rim that share similar geo-political positions astride both initiatives, such as Mauritius, the Maldives and Madagascar. This historical point of flux is a rare opportunity for such states to exercise agency in the scramble for a new strategic architecture of power. As these two architectures compete with (or complement) each other, small states will not only be able to leverage rivalry (or co-operation) for economic benefits, they can also shape the priorities and policies of these initiatives.
The Lankan position reminds us that the repainting of regions may still occur in faraway metropoles’ smoke filled rooms, but there is a limit to their powers. Great powers may set the agenda, but cartopolitical depictions are the whole world’s business, and it is small states that will decide the fate of their designs to repaint the world.
Daniel Alphonsus read philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford. Based in Sri Lanka, he dabbles in politics, diplomacy and journalism. The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s own personal views. They do not necessarily reflect or represent the policy or position of any institution or individual he is affiliated with.