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

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.


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