Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, by Robert D. Kaplan, is an odd duck of a book. It’s equal parts travelogue, history, and geopolitical analysis. Kaplan describes his travels around the rim of the Indian Ocean, starting with Oman and ending with Zanzibar. Along the way, he offers an overview of the geopolitics and history of the Indian Ocean and tries to make the case that just as the twentieth century was organized around the Atlantic, with the face-off between the US and the Soviet Union, the twenty-first century will be organized around the Indian Ocean, with India and China becoming the two dominant powers in the world. While I didn’t always agree with Kaplan’s claims , I did very much enjoy the book. Kaplan deftly weaves past and present, and does a good job of putting the current situation around the Indian Ocean in historical context, without getting bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day headlines.
Kaplan starts in Oman, and gives a succinct overview of how this unassuming desert sultanate at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz is poised to become one of the fulcrums of global trade in the coming century, possibly even surpassing Dubai. He draws an interesting comparison between Oman and Singapore, noting that both Sultan Qabus and Lee Kyuan Yew have both taken states with few natural resources but good geographic positioning and turned them into regional powers that have influence far beyond what their population or military would indicate. While I think his view of Oman was a bit over-optimistic (absolute dictatorships, enlightened or otherwise, inevitably have human rights abuses), I was fascinated to read about the history and culture of a state that is pivotal to global trade and commerce, yet, so far, has done a very successful job at staying out of the headlines.
From Oman, Kaplan moves on to Pakistan. But this isn’t the Pakistan of the news, dominated by the Taliban and the assorted unrest in the Northwest Frontier Provinces. This is the Pakistan of the Arabian Sea, of Baluchsitan and Sindh, the transition zone between Arabia and India. He focuses on the Pakistani port of Gwadar and notes how the continued development of the port has the potential to make Pakistan the prime outlet for natural resources from Afghanistan to the Caspian Sea. He notes increasing Chinese investment in Pakistan, as China seeks to counterbalance India, while India simultaneously invests in Afghanistan to counterbalance Pakistan. Kaplan here does a great job of drawing the outlines of the new multi-polar world order, where America will still have an outsize role, but not a dominating one. He notes that while India, for a variety of reasons, will never formally ally with the United States, Indian and US interests in Afghanistan align and so it would be in American policymakers’ interests to work with India to ensure stability in the crossroads of empire.
From Pakistan, Kaplan goes straight east, to Gujarat, and then to Delhi. He describes how the inter-communal riots in Gujarat are symptomatic of a rising Hindu nationalism in India, as Indians begin to recognize that they are a great power, with influence beyond their own borders. He pins much of the blame of the riots on Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of the state, and lauds India for not electing the BJP, even after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. He is bearish on Narendra Modi’s political prospects - saying that while he has certainly delivered strong economic results as the chief minister of Gujarat, he’s too divisive a politician for the national stage. This is where the book most shows its age, since, as we all know, Modi was elected Prime Minister of India in a landslide BJP victory in 2013.
After focusing on India’s economic future (in the form of Gujarat), he goes to Delhi, where he focuses on India’s geopolitical and military aspirations. He discusses how India is responding to China’s “string of pearls” strategy of building ports at strategic locations around the Indian Ocean with its own strategy of building up its navy and building diplomatic relations with countries around the Indian Ocean who are nervous about increasing Chinese assertiveness. Here, again, the interests of the US and India align, even as the two nations can’t enter into an explicit alliance. India’s position in the Indian Ocean is both a geographical and political counterbalance to China, and so, to some extent, the interests of the US Navy and the Indian Navy are in alignment. He heaps praise on the Indian Navy in particular, and states that while China is more powerful on land, India is stronger at sea.
However, great power considerations between China and India are still a thing of the future. The book moves on to focus on the “here and now”, which is the continued threat of Islamic extremism against India. Kaplan notes that while in previous decades terrorist attacks against India came from groups explicitly trained and armed by the Pakistani military, the latest attacks against India have been by non-state actors who are as dangerous to Pakistan as they are to India. In a way, the lawlessness in Pakistan is as much (or more) of a threat than the Pakistani military. Nevertheless, Kaplan remains very bullish on India, stating that India, among all the countries in the Indian Ocean rimland, is the only one that “couldn’t fall apart even if it wanted to.”
From India, Kaplan moves East to Bangladesh. He notes that Bangladesh is where geopolitics meets environmental policy, as the estuarial landscape of Bangladesh, combined with its extremely high population density renders it uniquely vulnerable to climate change. He covers the way that the semi-aquatic landscape of Bangladesh has shaped its politics and governance, noting the outsize influence of NGOs in a country where both geography and history have conspired to keep the central government weak. Kaplan notes that Bangladesh is more likely (because of environmental disaster) to be a destination for US military forces in the future than just about any other country in the Indian Ocean littoral. You can almost hear the disappointment as Kaplan discusses how the perfect geographic positioning of Bangladesh, right at the middle of the Indian Ocean, has been squandered by a Bangladeshi central government more focused on its own “Shakesperean” politics than on improving Bangladesh’s infrastructure to take advantage of the growing trade across the Indian Ocean basin. The chapter on Bangladesh is one of the few that ends on a gloomy note.
After covering the northern part of the two bays of the Indian Ocean, Kaplan jumps south, to Sri Lanka. Here he expresses relief at the fact that the LTTE insurgency has finally been defeated, while sounding a note of caution about the manner in which victory was gained. He writes that Sri Lanka provides India and the US with a quandary. Its government, though democratic, has committed large scale human rights abuses against the Tamil minority. However, at the same time, Sri Lanka occupies an increasingly important strategic location athwart the southern Indian Ocean. With China pursuing ever closer ties with Sri Lanka, including building a multibillion dollar port complex at Hambantota, India and the United States may have no choice but to make arrangements with a regime they find morally reprehensible, if only to avoid Chinese domination of the vital sea lanes between the South China Sea and the Straits of Hormuz and Bab El Mandeb.
Similarly, the US and India may have no choice but to deal with Burma. Burma is coveted by both India and China for its natural resources, with lumber and petrochemicals chief among them. In addition, Burma offers China a way to bypass the chokepoint at the Straits of Malacca. As Kaplan notes, the most direct sea access for much of western China is by going south through Burma, rather than east through China itself. However, Burma, more so than Sri Lanka, or perhaps even Pakistan, is arguably the most politically fragile state in the Indian Ocean region. The brutal military dictatorship conceals the fact that Burma (like Iraq, Syria, and many countries in Africa) is an artificial agglomeration of no less than 18 different tribes and ethnic groups, most of which have asserted claims of autonomy, or even independence, and many of whom have private militias which have historically carried out insurgencies against the central government. Kaplan points out that historically, the region currently known as Burma was a mish-mash of Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms, forming a rough buffer zone between the post-Mauryan states of India and Tang and Song dynasties of China. According to Kaplan, the key challenge for the United States and India is finding a way to engage with Burma without giving approval to its military regime or unnecessarily destabilizing the country. While he gives air to the opinions of human rights workers and ex-military aid workers who say that the US should intervene to topple the Burmese regime, Kaplan cannot, in the end, bring himself to endorse another fraught intervention in another tinderbox of a country. In my opinion, he is absolutely right to do so, and has been been vindicated by history, as the Burmese regime has started liberalizing on its own, after it has become clear that continued isolation has made the regime politically and economically vulnerable.
Kaplan reaches the Eastern end of the Indian Ocean in Indonesia. Here he describes how Indonesia charts Islam’s future, just as the Arabian peninsula remains stuck to an Islamic past. Like in Bangladesh, Islam arrived in Indonesia through trade, and therefore the Islam of the largest Muslim country in the world is a syncretic religion that builds on top of Hindu and Buddhist foundations in stark contrast to the fundamentalist Islam of the Arabian world. Kaplan shows how Indonesia forms an alternative model for political Islam; he shows that Indonesia is a tolerant state that, while officially Islamic, is tolerant of ethnic and religious minorities. In particular Kaplan points to the accord reached with separatist province of Aceh as a symbol of the resilience of the Indonesian state, which was once thought to be on the verge of dissolution after the revolution that toppled Suharto.
Finally, Kaplan circles back to Zanzibar, and shows how the African trading outpost symbolizes both the past and the future of the Indian Ocean. Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania, was once a vibrant trading outpost on the eastern coast of Africa. However, the conquest of Africa by European powers and the opening of the Suez Canal caused Zanzibar to go into a long decline into relative obscurity. Now, however, with the resurgence of African economic growth, Zanzibar is poised to make a comeback as India and China look to Africa for natural resources to fuel their insatiable economies. Culturally, too, Zanzibar is a symbol of the Indian Ocean, as its populace is composed of an eclectic mix of ethnic Indians, Omanis, East Africans and even Chinese. Almost all are descendants of traders who formed communities on this island hub off the coast of East Africa. The resurrection of Zanzibar is symbolic of the re-emergence of African nations as a force, politically and economically.
In addition to all of the above, Kaplan manages to intersperse quite a bit of history, weaving in tales of the Portugese, Dutch and British empires that would all, for a time, exert dominance over the Indian Ocean. Yet all of these empires faded, and Kaplan is quick to draw lessons from both their rises and their falls, and apply those lessons to the current balance of power in the Indian Ocean vis a vis the United States. It might seem that such an analytical volume would quickly devolve into dry calculation, but Kaplan manages to keep the book vibrant by writing about places he speaks from those places. He liberally mixes his own personal observations and adventures in with the statistics and analysis and thus is able to show the big picture view without losing track of ground level reality.
It’s remarkable that such a slim volume (400 pages) can be so packed with information and imagery. Kaplan manages to paint visions of his travels with hundreds of words, rather than thousands. If you’re at all interested in Asia, foreign affairs, history, or any of the above, Monsoon is highly recommended.