Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Monsoon: the Indian Ocean and the future of American power

Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, New York:
Random House, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-4000-6746-6, 367 pp. $28.00

From UNC

Global geopolitical analysis had a rocky 20th century.
In the first decade of that century, the British geographer
Halford Mackinder and the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote brilliant and prescient essays about the structure of world politics and the fundamental factors, most notably geography, that shaped international relations.
Mahan's reputation suffered, however, from the revelation that
Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany imbibed his writings during its quest to wrestle command of the seas from Great Britain; thereby, it was claimed, fueling a naval arms race that led to the cataclysm of the First World War.
Mackinder's reputation and geopolitical conceptions likewise suffered from their subsequent association in the 1920s and 1930s with the German school of
Geopolitik which, it was claimed, provided the intellectual justification for Nazi expansion, thereby producing the even greater cataclysm of the Second World War.

World War II and the early Cold War period revived interest in geopolitics, but for many observers, strategists, and statesmen, the advent of nuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems rendered geopolitics irrelevant.
When events demonstrated that nuclear weapons did not mean the end of war or the struggle for power and hegemony, geopolitical analysis returned and scholars and strategists dared to "think the unthinkable," namely that a nuclear war could be fought and won.

Geopolitics suffered again in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Defense Secretary
Robert McNamara and his successors surrendered U.S. nuclear superiority in deference to McNamara's theory of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD), the Vietnam debacle seemingly undermined the utility and morality of "power politics" on the international stage, and the pursuit of an imaginary detente with the Soviet Union fostered the impression that we no longer had an enemy to fear.

It took the loss of U.S. strategic superiority, a Soviet geopolitical offensive in the Third World, and the humiliating defeats suffered by the U.S. under the Carter administration (an administration that openly eschewed geopolitics in favor of "human rights") to bring about a resurgence in geopolitics in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the pacification of Europe, and the globalization of technology and information once again called into question the relevance of geopolitics.
History, it was said, had ended. Geo-economics had replaced geopolitics.
As the 21st century approached, the writings of Mackinder, Mahan,
Nicholas Spykman and lesser geo-politicians could safely be ignored.

Then, on a bright September morning in 2001, history reared its ugly head.
The United States was suddenly at war with an Islamic international terrorist organization headquartered in Southwest Asia, but with tentacles throughout the Islamic world and in many non-Islamic countries as well.
Furthermore, three longtime U.S. adversaries with ties to international terrorism, situated at both ends of the middle-belt of Asia--Iran, Iraq, and North Korea-- were actively seeking nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, China and India were expanding economically and militarily, entering the ranks of rising global powers.

Geopolitics, then, is still relevant in the 21st century, but the focus of geopolitical analysis has shifted from Europe to Asia.
In his new book,
Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Robert D. Kaplan recognizes this shift and narrows the focus even more by identifying the Indian Ocean region as the geopolitical "pivot" of the 21st century.

The Indian Ocean region, Kaplan notes, is host to the "principal oil shipping lanes" and the "main choke points of world commerce," "accounts for one half of all the world's container traffic" and "70 percent of the petroleum products for the entire world."
Through the single
Strait of Malacca flows half of the world's oil and a significant portion of the world's trade.
The region is also home, he notes, to "the entire arc of Islam, from the eastern fringe of the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago."
Furthermore, China and India, the two most populous countries in the world and the world's most important rising powers, inhabit the region.

Kaplan notes that the littoral of the Indian Ocean is divided geographically by the southern Arabian peninsula, the
Strait of Hormuz (the entrance to and exit from the Persian Gulf), southern Afghanistan, and the Arabian Sea in the west; the subcontinent of southern India and the island of Sri Lanka in the center; and the Bay of Bengal, the west coasts of Burma and Thailand, and the Strait of Malacca in the east.
The strategically vital Strait of Malacca leads to the South China Sea and southern China and, ultimately, to the Pacific Ocean.

Since ancient times, Kaplan explains, the Indian Ocean hosted a "web of trade routes" thanks to the monsoon winds (hence the title of the book).
In the days of sailing ships, "[f]rom the Persian Gulf to Sumatra in the Indonesian archipelago," he writes, "it was a relatively quick seventy-day journey--twice the speed of sail travel in the Mediterranean, owing . . . to the monsoon."
Arab, Chinese, Malaysian, and African seafarers developed "commercial and cultural inter-linkages" across the region.

During the age of European exploration--what Mackinder called the "Columbian epoch"--the region, or at least parts of the region, fell under the sway of Portuguese, Dutch, and later British imperial power.
Kaplan also writes about the land-based
Mughal Empire, which ruled India and adjacent territories in Central Asia from the 16th to the early 18th centuries, but his analysis highlights the enduring role of sea power for both economic and political advantage in the region.

It is here--with his discussion of sea power, China's maritime strategy, and the geopolitics of the region--that Kaplan, relying in part on the important works of
Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College, sheds the most light on the importance of the Indian Ocean region to U.S. security.

Echoing the great Dutch-American geopolitical theorist, Nicholas Spykman, Kaplan calls this region the "maritime rimland of Eurasia." (Spykman, in The Geography of the Peace, famously stated that whoever controls the Eurasian rimland would control the destinies of the world).
Within the Eurasian maritime rimland, "Indonesia--in particular, the island of Sumatra--and peninsular Malaysia on the opposite side of the Strait of Malacca," Kaplan writes, "form the heart of maritime Asia."
The Strait of Malacca, he explains, is "the most vital choke point of world commerce."
It is there where "the shipping lanes of the Red Sea and the Sea of Japan converge," where "the spheres of naval influence of India and China meet," and where "the Indian Ocean joins the western Pacific."

The Indian Ocean region, as Kaplan notes, has been dominated by American sea power since the end of the Second World War.
In the 21st century, that important geopolitical circumstance is changing. China and India are reading Mahan and learning the strategic value of sea power.
Shanghai's ports handle more cargo than any other port in the world.
In five years, China will be the world's largest shipbuilder.
"America's unipolar moment in the world's oceans," warns Kaplan, "is starting to fade."

China's quest for naval power stems, in part, from its insatiable demand for energy.
Energy fuels its remarkable economic growth, and the source of that energy is Middle Eastern oil and natural gas which must transit the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca to get to China's ports.
The "vital sea lines of communication around the southern Eurasian rimland," Kaplan explains, "must be protected."

China's ability to focus on sea power is due to the geopolitical fact that it is "more secure on land than it has been throughout history."
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire ended the most recent significant land threat to China's security.
It is an axiom of geopolitics that a power secure from serious challenges on land, can afford to take to the sea.

The Indian Ocean region is more hospitable to China's sea power than its Pacific coast.
Kaplan points out, as Spykman noted more than 60 years ago, that the geography of the western Pacific Ocean frustrates Chinese ambitions in that direction.
Several island chains, anchored by Taiwan, can effectively interfere with China's access to the Pacific.
China's ultimate goal, according to Kaplan, is to construct and develop a two-ocean navy.
"A one-ocean navy in the western Pacific," he writes, "makes China a regional power; a two-ocean navy in both the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean makes China a great power, able to project force around the whole navigable Eurasian rimland."

China does not need to replace the United States as the predominant global sea power to negatively affect U.S. security interests.
Instead, China need only develop the capability to deny U.S. access to key areas along the southern and eastern Eurasian rimland to effectively end U.S. naval predominance in this important region.
In the prophetic words of Nicholas Spykman, "Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world."

Links :
  • USNL : China's navy, a turn to Corbett
  • YouTube : The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power with Robert Kaplan

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