Cartopolitics and Sri Lanka: Rereading and Repainting Twenty-First Century Asia

06 September 2015
The two identities of Sri Lanka: one, glued to the South Asian hinterland, and the other, inextricably linked to the Indian Ocean rim.
The two identities of Sri Lanka: one, glued to the South Asian hinterland, and the other, inextricably linked to the Indian Ocean rim.

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.

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.

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