New ideas from 'old' maps

07 June 2018

This article was originally published by ANU Reporter.

Old-fashioned forms of mapmaking have been important to how nations interact, as Professor Rory Medcalf writes.

Old maps do much more than illuminate the past – they help us reimagine the present and the future.

In my own research and teaching at the ANU National Security College, I use antique maps of the maritime Asian region to help students and officials think differently about strategy and diplomacy.

That’s one reason I was pleased to learn of the recent donation by Emeritus Professor Clive Kessler of rare maps of southeast Asia to the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

One of the lesser-known treasures of ANU is its vast collection of maps, now augmented by the generous Kessler donation.

In this era of Google maps with their blandly correct cartography, we can forget how important more creative and old-fashioned forms of mapmaking have been to how nations interact.

In my work, a study of historic maps has been essential to comprehending the way regions are imagined – and what this has meant for politics, economics, peace and war.

That’s because maps don’t only tell us what we know – the maps in the minds of leaders and policymakers reflect and influence what they do.

Those decisions include the prioritisation of strategic relationships – who is our friend, who is our ally, who can we ignore, who poses a risk or potential threat? They encompass choices about where to allocate resources – which embassies should we expand, where should our navy patrol? And mental maps help shape regional diplomatic – who’s in, who’s out, what’s the agenda?

A fascinating example is the ‘new’ idea of the Indo-Pacific. Many governments are now talking about this as a more contemporary way of understanding the multipolar Asian region than the familiar ‘Asia-Pacific’.

The Indo-Pacific is about recognising that the Pacific and Indian Oceans are not only linked geographically – that’s obvious – but are one maritime ‘strategic system’ where what happens in one part affects the other.

After all, China is extending its interests and power across the Indian Ocean, which carries its vital oil. The maritime part of the so-called Belt and Road is the Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics.

India has a policy called Act East, deepening ties with countries such as Australia, Japan and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Japan, Indonesia and the United States are all formulating explicitly Indo-Pacific policies.

But when you examine old maps, you learn the Indo-Pacific is not new. It is more enduring than the Asia-Pacific, which marginalised India and the Indian Ocean and was accurate and useful only for a few decades in the late 20th century.

There were economic, societal and political connections between south and east Asia since ancient times – think Buddhism for starters.

In the colonial era, a pan-regional concept of maritime Asia became even clearer. From the 1500s to the early 20th century, almost every European map labelled ‘Asia’ presented an Indo-Pacific arc.

A highlight of my own collection is by the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, whose splendid 1571 map is strikingly modern (mermaids and sea monsters aside) in what it shows. It captures a region extending from the Persian Gulf to North America. (It also nicely labels Australia as ‘beach’.)

Another is by French mapmaker Alain Manesson Mallet: his 1683 ‘Asie Moderne’ is today’s Indo-Pacific. Modern Asia indeed.

And Australians are no strangers to the Indo-Pacific.

One of my first efforts to promote the Indo-Pacific in Australia’s foreign policy debate was a public lecture for the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in 2012.It was inspired by colonial explorer Thomas Mitchell’s innovatively pivoted map – ‘Why must north be up?’ – which showed this continent’s lifelines to places that matter.

That was from 1848, with southeast Asia, China, India and Japan all in the one frame. It's a map that makes even more sense today.

Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the ANU National Security College.

Photo: Ortelius map of the Indo-Pacific 'Indiae Orientalis' c. 1571, from Professor Medcalf's private collection

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