Will the Indian Ocean define the 21st century?

By Shashi Tharoor
Sunday, November 14, 2010


The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

By Robert D. Kaplan

Random House. 366 pp. $28

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."

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."

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