Book Review: Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, by Robert D. Kaplan.  2011, paperback edition.  Random House Trade Paperbacks.

In his recent book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Robert D. Kaplan builds a case for the growing importance of the Indian Ocean and its perimeter states as the new geopolitical center of the developing world.  The foundation of his narrative rests on the historical context of the Indian Ocean’s regular monsoon winds, which carried Islamic traders back and forth across the ocean in antiquity and set the stage for cultural and economic patterns still in play today.  Structurally, the book is divided into sections based on countries and regions and takes the reader around the perimeter states, examining the history of each and how they have developed.  Intertwined with the history lesson is a modern geo-political analysis of each state, which focuses largely on the interplay between China, India and the United States unfolding all around the Indian Ocean rim as well as the interaction between the lesser states themselves.  The book is a standout: it offers an excellent history of region, which benefits immensely from Kaplan’s extensive travels and his writing is both accessible and enjoyable.  Kaplan has an innate ability to relate the texture of a society (the look, feel and smells of a place, as well as a sense of its people) to the current geopolitical climate.  Of particular note are his chapters on Oman and Pakistan, which feature adroit analysis of the role of democracy and governance in the region and tie well into any discussion of how future powers will rise to geopolitical prominence in the region.

Though most of the time Kaplan’s book reads more like good travel writing than dry geo-political treatise, Monsoon begins its case for the importance of the Indian Ocean by quoting statistics.  Most telling of these is the following: “…the Indian Ocean rimland from the Middle East to the Pacific accounts for 70 percent of the traffic of petroleum products for the entire world.” (p. 7)   Kaplan focuses on the importance of the Indian Ocean to the energy needs of China and India.  He cites India as poised to become the world’s 3rd largest oil importer (After China and the US) with over 90% of its oil transiting the Indian Ocean.  China keeps the same company: over 85% of its imported oil already passes through the Indian Ocean.  (p. 7) As such, both countries have an extremely vested interest in keeping Indian Ocean energy routes secure.   This sets the stage for potential conflict (or alliance) with the current undisputed master of the seas, the United States. Kaplan writes “The Indian Ocean is where the rivalry between the United States and China in the Pacific interlocks with the regional rivalry between China and India, and also with America’s fight against Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, which includes America’s attempt to contain Iran.” (p. 9) He then transitions to the next portion of his book, a state-by-state tour of the Indian Ocean’s shoreline.

Kaplan’s journey around the rim begins in Oman, which is one of the birthplaces of Indian Ocean trade.  Connecting Africa to Persia, it became a major hub for trading frankincense, which according to Kaplan, “…was to antiquity what oil is to the modern age: the basis for economic existence, and for shipping routes.” (p. 23) Oman’s seafaring trade brought with it a certain cosmopolitanism not often associated with Arab kingdoms.  Extensive contact with the outside world, its unique geography and significant minority populations of Indians, Africans and Persians all contribute to Oman’s unique and persistent character.  In a wonderfully written section, Kaplan describes the newly constructed Grand Mosque in Muscat, which is emblematic of Oman:

To walk through the courtyards, along the arcades, and under the pointed sandstone archways… is to take an aesthetic dream journey from one end of the Islamic world to the other… There are the sharp, soaring archways reminiscent of Iraq, the tired and balconied minarets reminiscent of old Cairo, the dazzlingly intricate latticework and painted windows evocative of Iberia and the Maghreb, the carved wooden ceilings of Syria, ceramic tiles that recall mosques in both Uzbekistan and the Hejaz of western Saudi Arabia, the alternating white and dark gray stone arcades of Mamluk Egypt, the beige sandstone walls of India (from where the stones come), and of course, the handwoven carpets and mosaic floral designs of Iran.  (p. 44)  

He correctly surmises that “Though it is a mosque and religious complex, the tone is clearly one of inclusion. The world is welcomed.  It is the spirit of the ocean more than of the desert.” (p. 45)  This passage is typical of Kaplan’s excellent synthesis of history, his own travels and the architecture of whatever locale he is discussing to form a cogent analysis.

Modern Oman is ruled by Sultan Qabus, who has set himself apart from other gulf sultanates by his progressivism – “He has institutionalized his rule through the building of well-functioning ministries, advanced the status of women, built schools throughout the interior, worked to protect the environment, and outlawed hunting.” (p. 40) Interestingly, he has done all this as an absolute monarch.  While Oman is not completely without dissent, no great clamor for democracy was seen here as took place in the Arab Spring of 2011.  The very salient point Kaplan makes about this is the “In some societies, particularly in the Middle East, democracy is a matter of informal consultation between the ruler and the ruled, rather than an official process.” (p. 41)   Sultan Qabus has consolidated his rule by relying on consensus from tribal elders on the interior of the country and providing economic options for his people.  Kaplan writes that “Oman shows that something Americans believe is a bad thing – absolute monarchy – can produce good results.” (p. 42)  This point is echoed to some degree in other chapters and serves well to illustrate the shades of grey America will need to be comfortable with in order successfully legitimize itself in the region.  Unfortunately, Kaplan does not make this connection between American power and Indian Ocean governance more explicitly.

The counterpoint to stable, prosperous and undemocratic Oman is Pakistan: a democracy over a failing state, where votes have done more to inflame prejudice and ethnic tensions that to still them.  Tellingly, Kaplan’s chapter on Pakistan is titled “Baluchistan and Sindh,” denoting two of the separate regions of Pakistan.  He succinctly describes the tension between the them in the following passage: “Baluchistan, particularly the southern, coastal part, is a wild and wooly, Turko-Iranian, tribal stepchild of the Middle East that has chafed for decades under the domination of darker-skinned, urbanized and, so it is alleged, sharper-in-the-ways-of-the-world Punjabis, who live close to the Indian border in Pakistan’s crowded northeast, and who essentially run the Pakistani state.” (p. 67) All of this comes into focus along with the ever-present energy drama between the US, India and China, in the town of Gwadar. 

Gwadar is a port in the far Western reaches of Pakistan.  It offers deep water access to the Indian Ocean and has been the elusive goal of several nations.  The USSR sought Gwadar as an outlet for Soviet hydrocarbon wealth; Moscow spent thousands soldiers' lives and billions of dollars in a decade-long struggle to reach the port via Afghanistan.  Pakistan envisioned it as an outlet for pipelines from the same former Soviet states in Central Asia — “routes that would help Islamabad consolidate a vast Muslim rear base for the containment of India.” (p. 70) Alas, the chaos in Afghanistan once again trumped this vision.  Now, China is having a go: Beijing dreams of a pipeline running from Gwadar, through Pakistan and into China, providing a crucial energy conduit and alternative to the present method of shipping oil through the US-and Indian dominated waters of the Strait of Malacca.  China has already installed a state-of-the-art port in Gwadar, but it sits silent, waiting for approval from far-off Islamabad.  Meanwhile, the tribes of Baluchistan constitute an ever-present threat to the completion of any pipeline: the region is poor, has little representation in the government and is constantly on the brink of an insurgency.  Here Kaplan has another opportunity to examine the American ideal of democracy and compare it to Chinese pragmatism which he only partly develops.

The rest of Kaplan’s tour of the Indian Ocean’s perimeter continues in the same vein – well-researched histories, descriptive writing and insightful observations about the geopolitical trends in the region.  Much of the writing is spent drawing historical connections between the different societies of the Indian Ocean’s perimeter, often in a similar manner as the example of the Grand Mosque.  Architecture (particularly mosques and Hindu temples) is used again and again by Kaplan to reinforce these links.  While thorough, he overplays this theme to a fault; the constant reinforcement slows down the book at points.  Additionally, the title for his work is a curious one: Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and Future of American Power.  For being in the title of the work, there is relatively little page count devoted to America in the region.  It is given the nod for being the most powerful naval player, but significantly more time is devoted to India and China.  This is not to say the book would have been better with more time devoted to American interests – simply that it might have been more aptly titled Monsoon: The Indian Ocean’s Role in Global Dominance.

The final part of Monsoon is something of a structural anomaly.  Kaplan discusses Chinese naval aspirations extensively, mostly in the context of declining US sea power.  He then jumps to Zanzibar, covering the tiny Tanzanian island in much the same manner as the other Indian Ocean states he discussed in previous chapters.  His writing is still excellent, but the organization seems off.  After Zanzibar, he does most of the heavy lifting to connect with the “American power” portion of his title.  The truth is, most of the focus on the American power side of the equation is actually taking place between America and China in the Pacific, not the Indian Ocean.  He correctly identifies the crux of the issue – “To take refuge in the fact that the Chinese navy is decades behind America’s is to miss the point entirely. A nation like America that has just experienced the effects of asymmetric warfare against it on land in Iraq and Afghanistan should now expect the arrival of an age of asymmetric challenges at sea” (Afterword) – but misses the tie-in to the Indian Ocean. 

Kaplan suggests several times that the possibility of Americans working in conjunction with the Chinese on naval security matters would be the ideal outcome from the current geopolitical situation.  The Chinese anti-piracy Task Force 526 has regularly worked with the multinational, US-led anti-piracy Task Force 151 in the Indian Ocean.  It is disappointing that this connection is not addressed, as it both keeps better with the theme of the book and supports his position that a combined Sino-US naval security effort may be the best future for the region.  In the larger scheme of things, these are small flaws in an excellent piece of work on the history and future of geopolitics in the Indian Ocean.  The book is accessible to a wide audience and is worth reading for the history lesson alone on the Indian Ocean’s shoreline nations.  Kaplan’s analysis and conclusion that the Indian Ocean is rising in geopolitical importance due to its centrality to energy routes used by the US, China and India is generally sound and well-constructed and it will be interesting to see how Kaplan’s assertions stand up to the test of time.

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The book is at best a narration of history rather than a true reflection of the current geopolitical conditions and their impact on future rivalries and cooperation in the region. The region gains its prominence as world's major sea lanes of communication connecting the west and the east pass through it. It is the linking of Indian Ocean with the Pacific which adds to the collective importance of this region which may be used for contest or cooperation between US and China in the future.

In “Monsoon,” the author does try to make us see that despite being split in two by the old projections, the Indo Pacific is actually integral elements in a single coherent whole.

Kaplan’s goal is to provide us 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.”

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 - a phenomenon which already appears afoot with the recent standoff between US and China in the APEC and EAS 2011.

The book is at best a narration of history rather than a true reflection of the current geopolitical conditions and their impact on future rivalries and cooperation in the region. The region gains its prominence as world's major sea lanes of communication connecting the west and the east pass through it. It is the linking of Indian Ocean with the Pacific which adds to the collective importance of this region which may be used for contest or cooperation between US and China in the future.

In “Monsoon,” the author does try to make us see that despite being split in two by the old projections, the Indo Pacific is actually integral elements in a single coherent whole.

Kaplan’s goal is to provide us 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.”

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 - a phenomenon which already appears afoot with the recent standoff between US and China in the APEC and EAS 2011.

China has already installed a state-of-the-art port in Gwadar, but it sits silent, waiting for approval from far-off Islamabad.

Gwadar is a port in the middle of a wilderness that nobody visits. It has no road or rail connections through restless Balochistan.

Perhaps of more potential importance: India has built a road from Afghanistan to the Gulf of Oman. The Zaranj - Delaram road, built by India's Border Roads Organization, is part of a larger Indo-Iranian project that will connect Kandahar and Herat to Iran's Chahbahar Port on the Persian Gulf, a new Indian-financed port in Iran.

The financing and engineering assistance from India is not limited to the port. India, wishing to bypass Pakistan, besides the Zaranj - Delaram road leading from the port into Afghanistan there is a planned railroad to Afghanistan.