November 09, 2010

In the Indian Ocean, Hints Toward the Future of American Power

The twentieth century witnessed Europe unfold as the center of gravity for world history. And in this still early century, the Middle East and South-Central Asia have been focal points for American policymakers and others around the world. But the Greater Indian Ocean may well be the defining geo-political cauldron in the twenty-first century, according to CNAS Senior Fellow Robert D. Kaplan in his latest opus, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.     

Monsoon is a carefully crafted examination of the future of American Power in the context of the Indian Ocean, a region that once upon a time was the epicenter of world culture, travel, trade – wrestled over by empires of yesteryear – once again rising in prominence.

As the reader learns early on, historically, the region’s monsoon system (specifically its winds) shaped international engagement in the region, allowing travelers from the Horn of Africa and the Middle East to make the journey to India and beyond in a fraction of the time it would take states to cross the Mediterranean (which is also a much shorter distance than the leg from North Africa to India). The short duration made travel and trade expedient, allowing states to share goods and culture throughout the entire Indian Ocean region. (Indeed, we learn how the monsoon winds helped to spread Islam across the ocean.)

Today, the Indian Ocean remains a crucial region for trade, both commercial and energy. Kaplan writes:

Today, despite the jet and information age, 90 percent of global commerce and two thirds of all petroleum supplies travel by sea. Globalization relies ultimately on shipping containers, and the Indian Ocean accounts for one half of all the world’s container traffic. Moreover, the Indian Ocean rimland from the Middle East to Pacific accounts for 70 percent of the traffic of petroleum products for the entire world.

For those of you familiar with Kaplan’s work, you won’t be surprised at the level of detail and depth into history he provides the reader to help ground his or her understanding of how important the region was, which of course is necessary to fully understand the region’s resurgence in geo-political affairs. Of course, Kaplan’s personal accounts from his voyage across the Indian Ocean help the reader connect with the story he unveils as he hops across the greater region, from Oman, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, to Zanzibar.

Along the way, the reader learns about the future of the South-Central Asia as the potential crossroad for the region’s energy trade, with pipeline projects under construction that would connect petro-rich Central Asian states to the Indian Ocean, passing through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Other pipeline projects would connect Central Asia directly to the western provinces of energy hungry China. Indeed, energy trade figures prominently for states such as China that are making investments in ports and other infrastructure projects throughout the Greater Indian Ocean.

Take for example the quiet Pakistani port city Gwadar that Kaplan visited during one of his trips to Pakistan. Kaplan provides a useful chronology of investments made since the 1990s to demonstrate how important this port town is to the region, with investments coming from China and Singapore all in an effort to develop the deepwater port’s potential.  As Kaplan writes in Monsoon:

So imagine now, a bustling deepwater port refueling and docking facilities at the extreme southwestern tip of Pakistan, more a part of the Middle East than of the Indian Subcontinent, equipped with a highway and oil and natural gas pipelines that extend northeast all the way through Pakistan – cutting through some of the highest mountains in the world, the Karakorams – into China itself, from where more roads and pipelines connect the flow of consumer goods and hydrocarbons to China’s middle class fleshpots farther east. The pipelines would also be used to develop China’s restive, Muslim far west; indeed Gwadar looked poised to cement Pakistani and Chinese strategic interests. Meanwhile, another branch of this road and pipeline network would go from Gwadar north through a future stabilized Afghanistan, and on into Iran and Central Asia.

In this way, Gwadar becomes the pulsing hub of a new silk route, both land and maritime: a mega-project and gateway to landlocked, hydrocarbon-rich Central Asia – an exotic twenty-first-century place-name.

Not surprisingly, climate change is a topic Kaplan encounters during his trip across the region. Indeed, places such as Kolkata, India and of course Bangladesh are considered potential impact zones for climate change. In general, as Kaplan describes, climate change could be particularly pernicious for the Greater Indian Ocean region:

It is the monsoon’s dependability that inspires such awe, and on which agricultures and local economies consequently depend. A good monsoon means prosperity, so a shift in weather patterns due to possible climate change could spell disaster for the littoral countries. There is already statistical evidence that global warming has caused a more erratic monsoon pattern.

In addition to climate change, Kaplan points to growing populations in increasingly fragile environmental areas which could pose destabilizing and detrimental for people living in the region. As Kaplan writes:

Although the rate at which world population grows continues to drop, the already large base of population guarantees that absolute rises in the number of human beings have never been greater in countries that are most at risk. This means that over the coming decades more people than ever before, in any comparable space of time save for a few periods like the fourteenth century during the Black Death, are likely to be killed or made homeless by Mother Nature.

But beyond just energy, climate change and other issues we explore in the Natural Security program, Monsoon offers a unique glimpse into a region of the world often considered a blind spot for many Americans.  It is a vividly written account of how American power in the twenty-first century will rely on how well we navigate the Indian Ocean, as rising powers such as India and China become more assertive and jockey for influence and hegemony in the region. For anyone interested in America’s role in the world – today and tomorrow – it is a must read.

Join us tonight at 5 PM at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel for the official book launch of Robert D. Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.   

Photo: Historical map of Eastern Africa, Asia and Western Oceania c. 1550. Courtesy of