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Robert Kaplan's 'Monsoon,' reviewed by Shashi Tharoor

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By Shashi Tharoor
Friday, November 12, 2010; 8:37 PM

MONSOON

The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

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By Robert D. Kaplan

Random House. 366 pp. $28

In 1410, near the Sri Lankan coastal town of Galle, Chinese Admiral Zheng He erected a stone tablet with a message to the world. His inscription was in three languages - Chinese, Persian and Tamil - and his message was even more remarkable. According to Robert Kaplan in his new book, "Monsoon," the admiral "invoked the blessings of the Hindu deities for a peaceful world built on trade."

A Chinese sailor-statesman calling upon Indian gods as he set out to develop commercial links with the Middle East and East Africa: There could be no better illustration of the cosmopolitanism of the Indian Ocean region, centuries before the word "globalization" had even been coined.

Zheng's travels 600 years ago stand as a reminder of the economic potential of the vast Indian Ocean, which washes the shores of dozens of countries, large and small, from South Africa to Singapore. These nations straddle half the globe, account for half of the planet's container traffic and carry two-thirds of its petroleum.

But Kaplan is particularly interested in the ocean's strategic implications. His premise is that the Greater Indian Ocean, from the Horn of Africa to Indonesia, "may comprise a map as iconic to the new century as Europe was to the last one" and "demographically and strategically be a hub of the twenty-first century world." This makes the Indian Ocean "the essential place to contemplate the future of U.S. power." Perhaps that is what President Obama did last week as he flew from India to Indonesia, the vastness of the Indian Ocean beneath.

After laying out his thesis, Kaplan, the author of influential books on the Balkans, the American military and the "coming anarchy" of the post-Cold War world, launches into what he most enjoys - travel. He is a geographic determinist: For him, geography explains history, determines economics and transcends politics. As he ranges across the region from Oman to Sumatra, taking in Zanzibar, Kolkata and Sri Lanka along the way, he gives us a curious and compelling volume, part travelogue, part potted history, part journalism and part strategic analysis. It's a book that convinces the reader that what Kaplan calls Monsoon Asia is a profoundly interesting and complicated part of the world, but the chapters don't add up to a coherent argument as to why the region should matter more to the United States than anywhere else.

Yet if you don't care about getting there, you can have a lot of fun along the way, because Kaplan tells a good story - or rather, a series of good (if not always connected) stories. He converses with mysterious American expat soldiers with noms de guerre such as "Father of the White Monkey" and "the Bull That Swims," busy plotting freelance insurrections in Burma. A Pakistani dissident claims that India is "the role model for South Asia" and calls for open borders, while another denounces his own nation: "Pakistan is itself a breach of contract."

Amid fluent if bland prose, Kaplan occasionally startles with a passage of astonishing lyricism ("a sweeping, bone-dry peninsula between long lines of soaring ashen cliffs and a sea the color of rusty tap water") or passionate polemic ("poverty is not exotic, it has no saving graces, it is just awful"). There are powerful descriptions of global warming in Bangladesh, of the intersection of environment, demography and Islam in Indonesia, and of the people of Burma as "victim[s] of the evil confluence of totalitarianism, realpolitik and corporate profits."

The reporter in Kaplan is well in evidence when he visits the Pakistani port of Gwadar or Sri Lanka's Hambantota, both being developed by the Chinese (the former, he thinks, for strategic reasons; the latter for commercial ones). Facts and quotes abound as he recounts the growth of Indian naval aspirations and China's plans to be a two-ocean maritime power: Kaplan tells us that China will soon have more ships than the U.S. Navy and, by 2015, will be the world's most prolific shipbuilder.

Kaplan's breadth of travel and learning leads to intriguing insights, such as his argument that "like the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia and the Shiites in Iran, the Sinhalese [in Sri Lanka] are a demographic majority with a dangerous minority complex of persecution." In his view, Indonesia reveals both a "clash" and a "merger of civilizations." More contentiously, global capitalism as embodied by the Chinese "constitutes the real threat to Indonesian Islam."

These are all worthwhile ideas. But Kaplan too often strains to justify his interests with portentous claims: Sri Lanka is "the ultimate register of geopolitical trends in the Indian Ocean region," Burma "provides a code for understanding the world to come," Indonesia will be "a critical hub of world politics." Shoehorning his travels into the book makes for an uneven effect, with some surprising inclusions and omissions. One can't help feeling that a country has been deemed to be important because he traveled there.

In addition, the geopolitical analysis is sometimes erratic, as Kaplan hedges his bets. India and China could compete on the seas, providing an opening for the United States, or their "mutual dependence on the same sea lanes could also lead to an alliance between them that . . . might be implicitly hostile to the United States." A few pages later, "a global maritime system, loosely led by the Americans, with help from the Indians, and hopefully the Chinese" might evolve. By the end of the book, "leveraging allies must be part of a wider military strategy that seeks to draw in China as part of an Asia-centric alliance system."

Kaplan concludes that Washington, "as the benevolent outside power," must seize this "time of unprecedented opportunity" because "only by seeking at every opportunity to identify its struggles with those of the larger Indian Ocean world can American power finally be preserved."

Struggles? Finally be preserved? This is sketchy stuff at best, as if Kaplan felt the need to burden his reportage with an all-embracing thesis in order to justify putting a number of enjoyable but unconnected essays between hard covers. Memo to Washington policy-makers: "Monsoon" is a book to take on a long flight to the Far East. But it won't substitute for your dossiers when you get there.

Shashi Tharoor is a member of India's Parliament and the author, most recently, of "The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India in the 21st Century."


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