Maps of Time, Clocks of Space

Changing Imaginaries of Asia

Author: Ravi Arvind Palat


When Asia was conceptualized as Europe's "other," it was also cast as a temporally delimited concept: once capitalist modernity – assumed to operate evenly across the globe by conservatives, liberals, and the left – spread to eastern Eurasia, the differences between two unequal halves of the continent were expected to evaporate. The persistence of differences long after "Asia" was incorporated into the capitalist world-economy has led to a cartographic definition of the continent. Such definitions do not allow for historical processes that reshape relations between peoples, forging new links and severing old ones. This article traces the changing imaginaries of Asia historically. Since there are no indigenous conceptions of the continent, the author argues that the changing imaginaries of Asia are linked to wider geopolitical processes. When eastern Eurasia was subordinated to the drives of the capitalist world-economy, existing linkages were severed and territories were linked to, or through, colonial metropoles. After a brief period of autarkic development after decolonization, states along the Pacific coasts were increasingly integrated through production and procurement networks leading to a new imaginary of Asia. Since the end of the cold war and the emergence of independent states with large hydrocarbon resources in Central Asia, countries that were once excluded from cold war imaginaries of Asia – as well as India – are being integrated through newer imaginaries that reflect the greater prominence of China and India today as well as the rise of Islamic militancy and new ethnic conflicts.

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September 2013