Indian Ocean new center of geo-political gravity
“Monsoon.” By Robert D. Kaplan. 374 pages. Random House.
As the United States wraps up its exit from Iraq and plans a similar exodus from Afghanistan in a little more than two years, grim scenarios for the future are many: an Iraq folding into sectarian chaos, the merger of precarious Pakistan into a broad arc of civil war, the rise of a new “Iranian superpower” to fill the Middle Eastern void left by the Americans. Amid so many perfect geo-political storms, who knows?
A segue – if not a departure – from the many forecasts is the latest book by Kaplan, the 12th in his inimitable style of travelogue and analysis. In “Monsoon” he convincingly argues that what these two wars add up to when coupled with other broad movements of the world’s political tectonics is a new global center of gravity that will be the Indian Ocean.
Take out a map and check his logic.
At the western edge of the newly strategic ocean, the importance of which is obscured by conventional maps, lies Oman. Oman may scarcely be in the headlines today, but with $12 billion in port development and energy transit projects underway, it is soon to emerge as an end-run around the vulnerable Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of today’s oil flows on crowded sea lanes. Oman’s future role is aided by the fact it is relatively stable and well-run by Sultan Qaboos, who has managed to avoid the fate of the glitzy Gulf sheikhdoms whose indigenous populations, while nominally in charge, are now small minorities in their own lands. It is, in short, a “real country.”
Bordering the eastern edge is Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, but also one reflective of a worldly Islam, one that, problems notwithstanding, is at ease in coexistence with the many faiths long a part of its island archipelago. And do not forget that other strategic strait, the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia, which already hosts half the world’s maritime traffic and will only grow as the energy lifeline of China and Japan.
Then consider China’s massive port building projects right in the zones of today’s conflicts, at the Pakistani coast promising to be the export hub of the future Afghanistan’s mineral riches; in Sri Lanka at the southern tip of India and probably in Bangladesh at the ocean’s northernmost reach.
Atop this are Chinese road and pipeline plans to cross despotic Burma and even a scheme for a canal across Thailand’s Kra Isthmus, a $20 billion idea to link the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
If that is not enough to tip the global balance of power in a new direction, keep in mind that while the Americans are moving to increase their naval strength in the region, it comes at a time when the U.S. Navy is essentially shrinking. India’s and China’s navies, meanwhile, are rapidly growing.
Kaplan argues this in some ways is a return to medieval times, when the reversing winds of the annual Monsoon enabled the rise of robust maritime trade across the region and is an era he richly chronicles.
“This gradual power shift could not come at a more turbulent time for the Indian Ocean’s two halves,” Kaplan argues. “Yet they are the future, much more than the graying populations of the West.”