The Indian Ocean & the Battle for Supremacy in the 21st Century.
By Robert D. Kaplan, Black Inc (Australia), 366pp.
Reviewed: 18 December 2010
It's a difficult time for an American to write a serious review of America's future place in the world. All the facts seem to point to a decline in the global supremacy of the United States. Yet American political debate is still defined by widespread belief in “American exceptionalism”: that the United States has a unique, even divinely-appointed, civilizing mission to the world, so the lessons of history do not apply.
Robert Kaplan is a critic of the Bush regime and sympathetic to Obama, a Fellow in the Democrat-aligned think-tank Centre for a New American Security and member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board.
Kaplan identifies a problem for Americans in even conceptualising the Indian Ocean. Standard American world maps do not split the globe at the international dateline, but place the Americas page centre, filling adjoining space with the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans - the self-referential “Western Hemisphere”.
The Eurasian land mass and the Indian Ocean, home to 80% of humanity, are split into disjointed friezes down left and right margins of an America-centred world. There is no intuitive sense of the continuity of Eurasia by land, or the Indian Ocean by sea.
Kaplan sets out to provide a sense of the scale and diversity of the societies linked by the Indian Ocean, and the key drivers for both conflict and collaboration. These draw in all the world's powers, including the United States. Religion and national ideology furnish his key descriptors, with economics seen as enabler or consequence, more than as driver of events.
To his credit, Kaplan does not actually talk about the “Battle for Supremacy” promised in the book's subtitle. That phrase seems to have been a shot of publishers' marketing hype. He outlines national interests that may stoke conflict between major powers and coalitions of powers, but with none likely to achieve any conclusive “supremacy”.
This is a maritime perspective, but the politics are driven by people living inland. Not only the littoral states such as India and Indonesia, but inland states of Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and above all China, are vitally concerned with their access to Indian Ocean resources and transport lanes. Massive trade volumes between Europe and Asia, and American sea access to Middle East oil, depend on unimpeded Indian Ocean sea-lanes.
China is bothered by the bottleneck at the Malacca Straits where the Indian and Pacific Ocean sea-lanes meet, so it seeks overland access to the Indian Ocean through both Burma and Pakistan, funding massive port developments. A Panama-style canal across the Kra Isthmus in southern Thailand is on the cards, making a direct link between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
India and China each plan massive expansion of their navies, with China in particular building significant facilities as “aid” projects in Sri Lanka and the Gulf, as well as its multi-purpose port facilities in Pakistan.
Of 34 aircraft carrier groups on today's oceans, 24 are American. His case is that these mobile military facilities are not solely projections of military power, but also a “presence” that, for example, can deliver humanitarian assistance to victims of natural disasters. That would be a pretty expensive way to deliver aid. And doesn't current thinking see carriers as too vulnerable to modern missile attack?
Kaplan doesn't see the USA's multi-trillion dollar national debt as an issue. He is certain that America “will recover from the greatest crisis in Capitalism since the Great Depression”.
Kaplan sees the geopolitics of the next century evolving with the USA in diminished, but still central role, balancing the new great powers of China and India. He quotes Huntington and thinks the “civilisational” challenge from radical Islam is real, but will be managed by engagement with moderate Islam. If Indonesian girls can wear hijabs with tight shorts, anything is possible.
He sees China's rise, including its military expansion, as “responsible” and amenable to beneficial co-existence. That's not so good news for dozens of China's less-powerful neighbours who distrust China's hegemonic intentions. Nor does he mention anywhere the topic of Chinese or Indian emigration flows, which are causes of great anxiety throughout the region.
You have to read this book in the company of Kaplan's target reader - an American person of lesser knowledge and greater naivete, to whose voting intentions many allied states entrust a significant part of our future security. Reading it this way, the book is quite instructive.
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Richard Thwaites worked for over ten years with a range of Asia-Pacific cooperative institutions.