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The Making of a Maritime South Asia?

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Does the ocean space feature as part of South Asia as a region? Despite a semi-circular oceanic rim, regional mappings of South Asia have been largely obsessed with its land borders. Geographically, the region juts out into the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean. Historically, the sea has carried the markers of culture, religion, and language through the people. While there is an inseparable relationship between the region and the sea, why is it dropped from imaginations of the region? With the increasing significance of the ocean spaces, is a maritime South Asia in the making?

The disappearance of the ocean from the understanding of South Asia is an instance of how terrestrial the modern state system is. In a system characterized by sovereign and autonomous states separated by legal boundaries, seas and oceans are not exactly the ontological units of international relations. It is an important question as to how we make sense of open spaces like oceans amid an order that is highly statist in character.

In the case of South Asia, decolonization meant the introduction of this modern state system in the region. States were created with an obsessive attachment to their borders and people were assigned territorial citizenship as their primary political identity. The sea – the erstwhile space of human and capital flows, cultural and even legal networks across the shores – was now an empty space bereft of civilization. The nation-states became the containers of society.

The Contours of Post-colonial South Asia

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The post-colonial states of South Asia translated this territorial primacy of the land into practice. The sea barely featured in post-colonial South Asia’s political, economic, and socio-cultural journeys, as crafted by the states.

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Politically, land borders have been the flashpoints of border conflicts in South Asia. As a result, investment in and dependency on armies were much higher than on the navies, as existential threats have always been seen arising from the land borders and not from the sea.

Economically, South Asian states had largely turned inward post their emergence in the world order. The trading networks, routes, and passages across the Indian Ocean world came to a pause. The economic foundations of these newly independent states were autarkic in nature, along with the lack of structural elements like connectivity, free trade, and forces of globalization being weak.

Socio-culturally, migration, both free and forced, was stunted as political and strategic lines were drawn. Seas continued to be uniting elements across the states, but they were far less required. In branding an exclusive nationalism, which is the flesh and blood of South Asian states, the shared sea was dropped. The land was literally and metaphorically treated as a component of state identity and ocean spaces were unclaimed or adjacent.

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Maritime South Asia in the Making

Contemporary realities are a departure from this post-colonial moment. Pursuing the dualities of energy security and strategic significance, the South Asian states have gradually turned towards the sea. Consider India’s steady forays in the Indian Ocean for over a decade, while claiming to be a net-security provider across the Straits of Hormuz to Malacca. Sri Lanka has been fashioning its maritime identity as an Indian Ocean state after years of turmoil within. Bangladesh looks toward the Bay of Bengal in developing its maritime capacities and ports. Gwadar has changed Pakistan’s orientation to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

These rather contemporary changes are opening up the possibilities of reinterpreting and rearranging the boundaries of South Asia as the states look beyond the land. This turn toward a maritime South Asia can be broadly explained by four factors.

First, the state’s relationship with the market across South Asia has changed, leading to altered domestic priorities. With the opening up of the economies, there is an increased dependency on energy supplies and export-led growth, for which states have to venture out and invest in the sea as a carrier space.

Second, the sea itself has become a prized possession with the gradually improving prospects harnessing the blue economy. States are now much more interested in exploring assets like minerals and hydrocarbons of the oceans.

Third, South Asian states are much more capable and confident of power projection beyond the domestic. Investments in ports and naval equipment over the years have enabled states to look beyond the immediate land boundaries and envision their own spheres of influence. Putting behind the immediate turmoil of nation-building and equipped with a modicum of strategic power, South Asian states now look to flex muscles and become important players in the regional game rather than disengaging from it.

Finally, states have realized that maritime security is liminal in character. A threat on the shore, whether it comes from another state, a non-state actor, or a natural disaster, has effects on land. Therefore, the externalization of the sea is not entirely feasible. In certain cases, this understanding has also enabled the potential ground for regional maritime cooperation.

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Oceans as Zones of Security

Regional mappings and their constructions are not carved in stone, and they churn with time. Their boundaries dilate and conflate, expand and contract, primarily depending on how the actors imagine the region to be. The states in South Asia are undergoing a turn toward the sea, and the contours of the region are in flux.

However, these prominent maritime imaginations of South Asia neither go back to the meta-regional connections of the pre-Partition era, nor they are characterized by the interactional fluidity of the oceans in matters of trade and community. These imaginations of a maritime South Asia rather rest on the conversion of the ocean spaces into zones of security. They replicate and multiply a similar orientation of land territoriality put on the seas.

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A maritime South Asia will look very similar to a terrestrial South Asia as the cardinal logic of boundaries and zealously guarded sovereignty will be applied to the ocean space. The search for appropriating and securing the sea has the potential to turn the sea into a contested space as the states look to draw lines on the water.

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