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An Ocean at The Intersection of Two Emerging Maritime Narratives

Iskander Rehman is Visiting International Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 11, 2011

    This issue brief delves into the pragmatic motivations undergirding India and China's "will to the sea", before examining on a more conceptual level how New Delhi and Beijing have drawn on the old in order to buttress the new, most notably through the crafting of two maritime narratives. National narratives are a complex medium through which nations engage not only their own citizens and interest groups, but also the wider world. More than a simple exercise in public diplomacy, the weaving of a narrative pulls on a nation's deepest sense of purpose; unravelling history and geography as much as it sews them together. This paper draws attention to the different wisps and strands of bygone eras which have been collected, dusted, and woven into a larger narrative - as well as those which have been wilfully discarded. On both sides of the Himalayas, complex and millenarian histories are subjected to highly selective readings, which differ nevertheless substantially in their approach. Beijing's maritime narrative, while more developed than that promoted by New Delhi, is also more monistic and state-driven. India's pluralistic, amorphous approach is more incremental and syncretic, but also less easily exploitable. Formed of a tongue-like peninsula which lolls deep into the heart of this century's central lake, India's rarefied geography is a stronger sign of its oceanic destiny than any narrative could ever hope to be. China, with its vast lumpen landmass squatting at the eastern periphery of the Eurasian hemisphere, bound and locked by tight island chains and narrow waterways, will never reap the advantages conferred by India's formidable centrality. The harsh logic of geography will remain Beijing's major naval challenge, however much its growing fleet pushes, heaves and thrusts its way into the deep blue. Nevertheless, until New Delhi's strategic community aligns its mental map with its nation's natural contours, its promised oceanic destiny will remain forever a shimmering horizon, rather than a satisfying present. Such a process of conceptual alignment will require the forging of a maritime narrative which draws both on history's great tides, and on those who have successfully navigated them.

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