The Next Battleground
| October 18, 2010 - 02:04
Book review for The Wall Street Journal, Saturday Oct 16, 2010
Book review for The Wall Street Journal, Saturday Oct 16, 2010
by Gurcharan Das
Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Hardcover, price $28, 384 pages, Random House, 2010
We have come to accept that the 500-year domination of Asia by the West is coming to an end and that the balance of power in the 21st century will rest on the fortunes of China, India and the United States. In “Monsoon,” Robert D. Kaplan goes further, suggesting that it is in the Indian Ocean where history will be made and where the global struggle for democracy, energy, religion and security will be waged.
Mr. Kaplan, whose books include “Balkan Ghosts” and “Warrior Politics,” has a gift for geopolitical imagination. Maps do matter, he feels, and the right map can stimulate thinking about the future of the world. To understand the 20th century, it was important to understand the map of Europe. When it comes to the 21st century, however, Americans are at a disadvantage because of an inherent bias in their mapping convention: Since the 16th century, when Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator developed a method of showing the globe as a flattened surface, Mercator projections have tended to place the Western Hemisphere in the middle of the map, splitting the Indian Ocean at its far edges. Yet the Indian Ocean encompasses a quarter of the world’s surface and is home to half of the world’s shipping-container traffic.
From the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean stretches past the tense arc of Islam—with its tinderboxes of Somalia, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan—past the Indian subcontinent all the way to the Indonesian archipelago. The Indian Ocean will be the vital geography, says Mr. Kaplan, where the rivalry between China and India will play out, and where America’s future as a great power depends on its ability to command a place on this new center stage of history.
Hovering over the book is a familiar question: Will the 21st century be defined by wars of identity, in particular the clash of fundamentalist Islam with others, or will it be a story of a largely peaceful, economic rise of India, China and other nations in Asia and Africa? Mr. Kaplan believes in the more optimistic scenario. The message of “Monsoon” is that the economic impulse is likely to prevail and in the long run even the more extreme Islamic nations will turn middle class. Al-Jazeera, the Middle Eastern television network, is symbolic of this bourgeois Islam.
The best thing that the U.S. can do, Mr. Kaplan says, is to continue to protect the vital trade routes of the Indian Ocean for the benefit of all, in alliance with the navies of the new powers of the Indian Ocean world. But America will have to shift its obsession with al Qaeda in order to be perceived as “legitimate” by the new, insecure middle classes of Asia, and learn to project its soft power.
To this end, according to Mr. Kaplan, the U.S. can learn something from India, whose soft power is admired around the world. The country is perceived by many as a pluralistic, democratic, nonviolent land of the ideals of Buddha, Gandhi and Tagore, ruled by the righteous principles of dharma during the best periods of its history—of the emperor Akbar in the 16th century, for example, and Ashoka in the third century B.C. This perception may explain why India’s rise does not stir uneasiness in the same way that China’s does. America too is a land of ideals, of course, but the world tends to forget that and needs to be reminded.
“Monsoon” rests on the premise that the Indian Ocean is “more than just a geographic feature, it is also an idea.” I am not persuaded. Just as I am not persuaded that Asia is an “idea” in the sense that the West is. I have trouble imagining what people mean when they say that the 21st century will be an era of Asian dominance. It makes sense to talk about the rise of India and China, but Asia is too diverse with too many cultures, nations and religions—and it is too disunited. Yes, there have been rich, historical connections between Asian countries based on trade, diplomacy and Buddhism, but that is insufficient to support Asia as an “idea.” This is a landmass, after all, that stretches from the Near East to the Far, across seven time zones and half the world’s latitudes.
For the 21st century to be a peaceful era, Mr. Kaplan suggests, China, India and America should look to history for inspiration. The Indian Ocean was a trading cosmopolis before the Portuguese arrived in the late 15th century, an oceangoing marketplace where Indian, Chinese, Arab and Persian traders were brought close by the monsoon winds to create a grand network of communal ties. Such comity will be hard to duplicate as India and China grow more powerful and their interest in dominating the Indian Ocean increases accordingly. It should be noted that the navies of China and India will soon rank second and third in the world, trailing only the U.S.
India fears encirclement by China, and India’s other neighbors are increasingly uneasy about Beijing’s swelling power and assertiveness. Amid these worries, many Asian countries still look to America as the only credible guarantor of security in the Indian Ocean.
Mr. Kaplan offers plenty of striking insights in “Monsoon,” and his analysis generally makes sense—but I nonetheless have trouble believing that the future of the 21st century will hinge on naval power. Military ships these days seemed designed more for intimidation and transport than for all-out naval warfare—they’re sitting ducks for sophisticated rocketry.
When it comes to the contest between India and China, I do not believe it will be decided either by arms or economic strength. Both countries will soon become prosperous and middle class. The race will be won by India if it fixes its governance before China fixes its politics; or by China if it finds a way to give its people liberty before India reforms its institutions of the state--bureaucracy, police, and judiciary.
Mr. Das is the author of “The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma.” (Oxford University Press, 2010).