Special Report: Defining Asia

November 15, 2009


As President Obama travels from “Asian summits” at the Asia-Pacific Economic (APEC) forum and the U.S.-ASEAN summit, the Asia Security Initiative blog investigates what we mean by Asia.  Today, three views from India.  In this post, Swarna Rajagopalan asks “What is Asia?”


So, Is President Obama Really Going to Asia?

This week, President Obama is visiting Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul. Five cities of global importance that happen to be located in Asia. East Asia, to be precise. We can go back and forth on Singapore, which is located in Southeast Asia but really, to most Asians is like Europe.

A few weeks ago, I wrote from New Delhi about the great distances within my subcontinent-sized country. Today, I look at Obama’s itinerary and reflect on the size of this continent about which several of us have been blogging for the last six months or more. What is Asia? What does it mean to say something or someone is Asian? A landmass, a continent that embraces 4-5-6 civilizations with spillover along all its geographical frontiers can scarcely be imagined so easily, let alone a policy agenda or diplomatic platform evolved for its ‘teeming billions.’

Most people from this continent find the American conflation of ‘Asia’ with ‘East’ or ‘Pacific’ Asia a little annoying. But it’s a hangover from the times not a lifetime ago, when world maps were colour-coded by colonizer and where regions were named according to their distance from Europe (Near East, Far East, Middle East). Equally, the terms West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia have little resonance for people from the regions, who usually resent being lumped with others into a category—but at least they are geographically somewhat precise. And they take cognizance of distance, diversity and difference of interest.

President Obama is visiting Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul. Really, he is visiting East Asia. Far away from the realities of people in Tehran. In Sharjah. In Kandy. In Paro. In Almaty. In Chennai, for that matter. He cannot go everywhere, that’s fine; but let’s understand that his visit has different kinds and different levels of significance for all these people.

President Obama’s discussions will mostly be on bilateral issues. However, since most of these capitals belong to the same one or two regional security complexes, some issues will be discussed more than once and from more than one perspective. But they will still be East Asian issues from East Asian perspectives. And many of them will have neither relevance nor interest to people in other parts of Asia.

Moreover, when the President stops over at the APEC Forum, he will still not be talking with Asia’s leaders. He will be talking with leaders of states around the Pacific and then one or two others. The composition of APEC is not an accident of history; there was a conscious decision to keep a good part of Asia out of the organization.

But APEC is made of many important global players and when they speak they will speak about matters of global importance to a global audience. They will not, however speak for most of Asia and they will certainly not speak to most of Asia’s pressing economic, political and security problems.

Perhaps American interests would be best served if policymakers could start to disaggregate ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian’ in their minds, taking real cognizance of the mind-boggling range of identities and interests here. Hyping this visit as an Asian excursion overstates the reach of this itinerary or any diplomatic agenda the President could possibly have.

International relations scholars like summit diplomacy and the high table of international politics because so much else that we study is abstract, intangible and as we now like to say, ‘constructed:’ constructed by law like the state, constructed by polemics like the nation or constructed by scholars like anarchy and neorealism. But the real value of summit meetings can only be decided on a case by case basis. Perhaps the Obama visit will bring something fresh, something bold to the international politics of East Asia; but until we see that it does, let the buyer beware …

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