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Why India is the pivotal nation of Asia

January 13, 2018 11:54 IST

'If Asia is the east, then it is India that is the true middle of the East,' argues M J Akbar, journalist, thinker and now minister.

Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, centre, at the dinner to mark 50 years of ASEAN, November 12, 2017. Photograph: @narendramodi/Twitter
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, centre, at the dinner to mark 50 years of ASEAN, November 12, 2017. Photograph: @narendramodi/Twitter

Maps are surely the most dynamic, as well as the most problematic, facts of history and geography; they can become a representation of both walls that blockade and doors that open.

The 20th century saw a startling shift in the continual flux of maps. For the first time in recorded history, maps were drawn not by the aggression of empires but by the broad will of the people.

The 20th century witnessed two seminal moments. One was 1947, when the map of modern, free India took its place on the globe. The second came 20 years later, in 1967, when five nations planted the seeds of a sapling that would grow into a banyan.


The age of colonisation ended the day India won her freedom, for European colonisation, which began in India, also ended in India.

ASEAN was a proclamation of what to do with independence and freedom: Create a partnership for the peaceful and progressive way towards prosperity.

It is my conviction that the bridges we build between India and ASEAN will become a dominant influence upon the 21st century.

The ebb of empire across the world began in the middle of the 19th century, and became irreversible after the collapse of Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German empires in 1918.

Within another quarter century, the great European colonisers, led by Britain, were also in headlong retreat.

From this debris of empires and colonies emerged a startling, and even revolutionary, political formation, the republican nation state.

The stress is on republican. The whim and ambition of dynasties and autocrats was displaced by the will of the people.

Of course the process has not been perfect. Inheritance issues from the machination of colonisers still occupy our chanceries; space was even given to a barren idea that spawned regressive violence and the terrorism that haunts us now.

The fortunate part is that those nations who believe in progress have found the means to reach one another through either neighbour-induced or multilateral concentric circles.

This is a good moment for a good question: What does 'neighbour' mean?

The human being is still land-centric. Our life, civilisation, culture, agriculture, produce and production are still measured largely in land-terms.

We therefore look at neighbours through the medium of distance. That, I would suggest, is becoming irrelevant.

It is far more accurate to define neighbours by reach rather than distance. There are hundreds of flights between India and ASEAN every week, and we could add hundreds more without exhausting demand.

On the other hand, we cannot fill even three flights a week to a country to our immediate west. So who is a neighbour? If I cannot reach you, are you a neighbour or an obstacle?

Our land-centric approach also tends to blind us to the sea map. The sea map of India extends to the Malacca straits, and the Indo-Pacific waters are already one of the major arteries of world commerce.

From the Andamans, Aceh is less than 100 nautical miles away; and it is said that on a clear night you can see the glow of Singapore's lights from land's end in Andamans.

There is an air map as well. Chennai is only as far from Kuala Lumpur as it is from Delhi. Similarly, Delhi is exactly as far from Dubai as Dubai is from Cairo.

Connectivity has acquired exciting and creative dimensions. We are only at the edge of exploring the possibilities in communication.

The 21st century will not belong to land; it will be a century of the seas, skies and space.

India and ASEAN are neighbours in all senses of the word: Distance, reach and, perhaps most important, in the cultural harmony and political philosophy around which we have managed our nations and put them in the forefront of modernity.

People of every faith live as equals in our lands; the music of multiple languages entrances our environment; tradition merges seamlessly into the present; and common values strengthen the spirit of a shared destiny for our citizens.

Asia is, of course, synonymous with the east; but, interestingly, the word itself has come from the west. It is a Greek word, which the Greeks used for the Levant, where lived their oldest rivals, the Trojans.

As the Greeks discovered the expanse of the east, Levant became Asia Minor.

Alexander overwhelmed the mighty Persian empire, which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indus; India, of course, was the land beyond the Indus.

As we all know, Alexander stopped in the Punjab -- and probably lost his life thanks to a wound in an encounter at Multan -- although he knew enough by then about the intellectual and material wealth of India, and indeed of the weakness of the prevalent Nanda empire.

The Portuguese were the first invaders to reach India by sea. Trade was their first interest; domination followed.

After Waterloo in 1815, Britain, as the pre-eminent power, doubled the number of ships to India and China.

Trade, it may be noted, is never neutral; it is the outcome of a knowledge edge in science, technology and prowess. Britain displaced India and China in world markets, notably Africa, where till the 18th century Indian calico and silk-cotton ruled the markets.

By 1850 Britain was sending 17 million yards of fabric to west Africa alone, up from just one million in 1825.

In the east, Europe kept adding each geographical 'discovery' to the Asian pile. The short point is this: There was never really a cogent Asia, which is why the continent is riddled with misnomers. Speaking at the Manama dialogue, I wondered which east was the Middle East in the middle of.

If Asia is the east, then it is India that is the true middle of the East.

All you have to do is look at the map. Geopolitically, and for many other reasons, India is the pivotal nation of Asia.

ASEAN launched the process of redefinition by concentrating on the logic of regional groups.

The most important aspect of ASEAN was that its focus was on the welfare of the people, which lay in trade, travel and economic growth; and not on the welfare of governments, which were rarely able to look beyond their nose, or look beyond a military alliance.

Such a vision is remarkable at any time; that it should emerge in 1967, within the vicinity of Vietnam, is almost breathtaking.

Decolonisation did not end conflict.

The last century has seen four world wars: The third was called Cold, but enflamed South East Asia, with Vietnam as the epicentre.

When napalm filled the skies, when China was gripped and ripped apart by the Cultural Revolution, when India was stumbling through regional wars, food shortages and the economic fog created by pseudo-socialism, some visionaries were thinking ahead, about a garden of peace. We must salute them.

Edited excerpts from Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar at the India-ASEAN Connectivity Summit in New Delhi, December 11, 2017.

M J Akbar
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