24 January 2011

Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

Below you'll find a book review on Robert Kaplans's latest work, Monsoon. I hope reading the review prompts you to read the book. I finished reading it this past weekend and found the book to be a particularly compelling and very well-written story of a region vital to global stability and our own national security.
I've spent a significant part of my career transiting and operating in the waters of the Indian Ocean and the surrounding littoral and have watched the importance of these waters, and the commerce that passes through them, steadily rise in importance to the United States and in their impact on our Navy - how we view ourselves and our mission and how others view us.
Kaplan's book brings it all home - the sweep of history, the primacy of the maritime component in the overall strategic importance of this region, the cultural complexities that underlie the relationships between the nations that border the region and what all this means to the United States and our Navy.
Take the time to incorporate Monsoon in your personal reading program - you'll be glad you did.
All the best, JCHjr

The New Great Game
Published: November 19, 2010

Maps often reveal more about those who draw them than they do about the reality they purport to represent. The Mercator projections that typically hang on the walls of classrooms and Pentagon offices place the United States in the middle, separated from Europe to the east by the Atlantic Ocean and from Asia to the west by the vast expanse of the Pacific. Our preference for this perspective no doubt reflects a certain national egocentrism, but for the better part of the last two centuries it has also made a good deal of strategic sense.

Through much of the 19th century these oceanic moats made possible what the historian C. Vann Woodward called an era of “free security.” As it grew stronger and stepped onto the world stage, the United States projected its power primarily toward Europe and East Asia. Over the course of the 20th century, Americans waged wars, hot and cold, to prevent these vital regions from falling under the dominion of hostile forces.

Whatever purpose they may once have served, yesterday’s maps have now outlived their usefulness. Since the end of the cold war, and with increased speed and intensity since 9/11, our focus has shifted toward the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, as well as toward the waters of the western Pacific. In “Monsoon,” Robert D. Kaplan argues that we need fresh ways of seeing the world, and especially these parts of it that, despite being split in two by the old projections, are actually integral elements in a single coherent whole.

Kaplan’s goal is to provide his countrymen with just such a map, one centered on what he calls “the Greater Indian Ocean.” This is a region that stretches “eastward from the Horn of Africa past the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian plateau and the Indian subcontinent, all the way to the Indonesian archipelago and beyond.” Thanks to monsoon winds that shift direction at regular six-month intervals the waters connecting these far-flung shores have long been readily navigable, even by relatively primitive sailing vessels. Linked first by Muslim merchants, the Greater Indian Ocean was later dominated by Portugal, then by the British and most recently by the United States.

Although it became something of a strategic backwater during the cold war, this maritime domain is emerging as the global system’s center of gravity. Through it pass huge tankers carrying a large fraction of the world’s energy. At its western end, from Somalia to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf to Iran and Pakistan along the shores of the Arabian Sea, lie the main sources of Islamist extremism. Most important of all, it is in the Indian Ocean that the interests and influence of India, China and the United States are beginning to overlap and intersect. It is here, Kaplan says, that the 21st century’s “global power dynamics will be revealed.”

“Monsoon” is Kaplan’s 13th book, and like much of his earlier work, it contains a special blend of first-person travel writing, brief historical sketches and wide-ranging strategic analysis. Proceeding clockwise from Oman at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Kaplan comes ashore at various points along the coasts of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Indonesia before completing his journey in Zanzibar off the shores of East Africa. At each point along the way he finds varying mixtures of economic dynamism, cultural diversity, ethnic tension, ecological strain and political turmoil. He is most optimistic about those places (like India and Indonesia) that combine democratic institutions with decentralized administrative structures and cultures of tolerance. Those (like Pakistan and Myanmar) where authoritarian regimes seek to impose order on diverse populations will remain dangerously prone to radicalization, instability, violence and the possibility of internal collapse, external meddling or both. Some (like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) could go either way.

Kaplan is at his best when he describes the “new Great Game” that is now unfolding across the Indian Ocean. As he correctly notes, it is China that is primarily responsible for setting this game in motion. Since the turn of this century, that country’s explosive economic growth has propelled it outward in search of markets, materials and, above all, energy. Thirsty for oil, Chinese tankers now ply the waters from the western Pacific, down through the narrow Strait of Malacca off Indonesia, across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf.

In a world governed solely by the laws of supply and demand, China’s increasing engagement in global energy markets would pose no serious problems. But there are other forces at work. Despite their smiles and professions of good will, China’s leaders believe that the United States is threatened by their country’s rise and ultimately seeks to thwart it. Given the fact that the United States Navy dominates the world’s oceans, a growing dependence on seaborne energy imports represents a potentially deadly vulnerability in Chinese eyes.

Beijing has responded in two ways: first by beginning to build up its own naval power, and second by seeking alternative supply routes that are less susceptible to interdiction by the United States or other hostile powers. Included among these are overland pipelines to contiguous energy sources in Central Asia and a variety of ambitious engineering projects (including a new port at Gwadar in Pakistan, other ports and pipelines in Myanmar, and a possible canal across the isthmus of Thailand) that could shorten the route from Persian Gulf suppliers to Chinese consumers.

The pursuit of energy, Kaplan explains, has thus caused China to become much more active and visible in an area that a fast-growing India regards as its own backyard. In response, despite continuing worries over internal stability and the perpetual problem of a hostile Pakistan, Indian planners have begun to broaden their strategic horizons. New Delhi now seeks to compete with Beijing for influence in Myanmar and to counter its initiatives around the Bay of Bengal by strengthening ties with Vietnam and Indonesia in the South China Sea. A bigger navy will give India the means with which to defend its own expanding energy imports and perhaps to exert leverage in a future confrontation by threatening China’s. Finally, over the past decade, India has entered into a quasi-alliance relationship with the United States.

Kaplan holds open the possibility that nascent great-power rivalry will lead to ever closer cooperation. Perhaps, as the two Asian giants grow stronger, and with America “in elegant decline,” the era of United States naval dominance in the Greater Indian Ocean will give way to “an American-Indian-Chinese condominium of sorts.” Pursuing their shared interests in peaceful trade and development, the three nations could collaborate to oppose piracy, preserve freedom of navigation and respond to natural disasters.

Perhaps. What seems more plausible at this point is that the competitive impulses Kaplan so accurately assesses will grow stronger. If that is what happens, then the United States and India are very likely to find themselves working harder and more closely in the years ahead to balance ­China’s growing power.



YN2(SW) G said...


Kaplan rarely disappoints. Did you ever read 'Hog Pilots and Blue Water Sailors'? He actually spent some time aboard a DDG. He had some interesting observations of Sailors as well.


ADM J. C. Harvey, Jr USN said...

YN2(SW), I haven't read Hog Pilots and Blue Water Sailors, but will add it to the list. I've been a huge Kaplan fan since reading Balkan Ghosts years ago. You cannot go wrong with him.
Trust you are settling in over there and finding useful work. Quite a roller-coaster ride back here! All the best, JCHjr

C-dore 14 said...

Adimiral, I'm six chapters into 'Monsoon' and am finding it an interesting read. Having read all but one of Kaplan's books (I kept 'Balkan Ghosts' nearby while working the Yugoslavia issue in the '90s) I'd rate this as one of his better efforts.

YN2(SW) G said...


Settling in nicely. I even got the title 'Special Assistant'. The beer is good too!