Chapter 9: South Asia

Identifying the Boundaries

Of the world’s seven continents, Asia is the largest. Its physical landscapes, political units, and ethnic groups are both wide-ranging and many. Besides Russia, Southwest Asia, and Central Asia, which have been addressed in previous lessons, Asian regions include South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia.

South Asia extends south from the main part of the continent to the Indian Ocean. The principal boundaries of South Asia are the Indian Ocean, the Himalayas, and Afghanistan. The Arabian Sea borders Pakistan and India to the west, and the Bay of Bengal borders India and Bangladesh to the east. The western boundary is the desert region where Pakistan shares a border with Iran.

The realm was the birthplace of two of the world’s great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, but there are also immense Muslim populations and large groups of followers of various other religions as well. Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism are the top three religions of South Asia. While Pakistan and Iran are both Islamic republics, each represents a significant branch of that faith; Iran is predominantly Shia, and Pakistan is mostly Sunni. Religious differences are also evident on the eastern border of the realm, where Bangladesh and India share a border with Myanmar. Bangladesh is mainly a Muslim country, while most in India align themselves with Hinduism. In Myanmar, most follow Buddhist traditions. In addition, Sikhism is a major religion in the Punjab region, which is located on India’s northern border with Pakistan.

Figure 9.1 Main Features of South Asia

The countries of South Asia include Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and the Maldives. The Himalayas, separating South Asia from East Asia along the border of China’s autonomous region of Tibet, are the highest mountains in the world and the dominant physical feature of the northern rim of South Asia. Other countries that share the Himalayas include Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Pakistan. Farther north along the Himalayan range, the traditional region of Kashmir is divided between India, Pakistan, and China. On the opposite side of the Himalayas are two island countries off the coast of southern India. The first is Sri Lanka, a large tropical island off India’s southeast coast, and the other is the Republic of Maldives, an archipelago (group of islands) off the southwest coast of India. Maldives comprises almost 1,200 islands that barely rise above sea level; the highest elevation is merely seven feet, seven inches. Only about two hundred islands in the Maldives are inhabited.

The balancing of natural capital and population growth is and will remain a primary issue in the realm’s future. South Asia is highly populated, with about one-and-a-half billion people representing a wide range of ethnic and cultural groups. The diverse population has been brought together into political units that have roots in the realm’s colonial past, primarily under Great Britain. British colonialism had a significant impact on the realm; its long-term effects include political divisions and conflicts in places such as Kashmir and Sri Lanka.

Current globalizing forces are compelling South Asian countries to establish a trade network and institute economic policies among themselves. South Asia is not one of the three main economic core areas of the world; however, it is emerging to compete in the world marketplace. Some would call India a part of the semiperiphery, which means it is not actually in the core or in the periphery but displays qualities of both. All the same, India remains the dominant country of South Asia and shares either a physical boundary or a marine boundary with all the other countries in the realm.

All countries north of Afghanistan were once part of the former Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the South Asian countries were in the shadow of the superpowers and had to engage in diplomacy to balance their relationships between the Soviet Union and the United States. Communist China is an emerging economic power and has used Tibet as a buffer state with its rival, India. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been working to reestablish itself in the global economy. Like India, Russia portrays qualities of the semiperiphery. The United States has had a major impact on the affairs of the South Asian realm, even though it is physically located on the other side of the world. The United States has been at war in neighboring Afghanistan since 2001 and has also been a major economic trading partner with the countries of South Asia. Complicating the situation, the United States has developed an extensive trade relationship with neighboring China. Economic advancements and global trade have catapulted the countries of South Asia onto the world stage.

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