“A Framework for the 21st Century”
By Felicia Graham
Since outlining the United States’ renewed focus on Asia-Pacific last November – the now-famous “pivot” – it seems that the Obama administration really does mean business. President Barak Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have both been vigorously strengthening bilateral relationships with Asian countries, including South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. And as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wind down, it seems that this tilt toward Asia-Pacific will continue even more rapidly.
Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor Intelligence, Robert Kaplan underlines the importance of this shift in Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. In his book Kaplan offers a unique insight that compliments the new US realignment toward Asia-Pacific – also thought of as a shift away from the Middle East to other theaters of activity.
Monsoon brings to light a much-needed and thorough explanation of the importance of the Indian Ocean to American security. Kaplan describes this importance by taking the reader on a vivid journey through the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean, describing in great detail the intricate network of cultural and economic trade that has existed for centuries from Oman, to India, to China.
Kaplan skillfully juxtaposes this historical trade of spices and shifting poles of power to the now well-established sea-lines of communication throughout the Indian Ocean. On its Western edge lies Somalia, where pirates off the coast disrupt the flow of oil tankers; farther East are Iran and Pakistan, now centers of Islamic extremism; then, past rising India, comes the coast of South East Asia where China’s rapidly growing economic and naval influences create a sense of uncertainty among a slew of developing countries.
In fact, as Kaplan noted in an exclusive interview with Oil Diplomacy, “the Indian Ocean remains the primary transit route” of vast quantities of oil from Middle Eastern countries to the budding Asian economies. Despite the rise and fall of powerful countries, the Indian Ocean will remain the setting where a number of national interests directly intersect through transit. In Monsoon, Kaplan clearly emphasizes the importance of the Indian Ocean, which he describes as the only place in the world where US, Chinese and Indian interests increasingly overlap as regional angst sets in.
Despite this unique junction of both national and international interests, unparalleled in any other part of the world, the United States has been slow to recognize the importance of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, Kaplan told Oil Diplomacy that since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the US has kept an eye on the Pacific and Indian Oceans – describing the realignment towards Asia as “not a new policy, but an old one that has been put off for two decades.” According to Kaplan, this delay was due largely to US preoccupation with the Middle East – first the Gulf Wars of the 1990’s, followed by 9/11, and the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now that the US has left Iraq, and is scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the time has finally come to focus on other theaters of activity. Yet even as this policy unfolds, it seems that the Indian Ocean may not get the attention it deserves as the US boosts its presence mainly in the Western Pacific.
Although Kaplan acknowledges the importance of the Pacific as well, Monsoon provides a thorough justification for increased US attention in the Indian Ocean. “Indeed, the challenge to America, ultimately, is less the rise of China than communicating with this emerging civilization of Africans and Asians,” Kaplan writes in Monsoon. In short, instead of focusing strictly on China as an adversary, Kaplan argues that the US should strengthen its relationships with emerging powers stretching from the Horn of Africa to the coasts of Indonesia.
Most importantly, Monsoon proposes a new way of thinking about the geopolitical arrangements of the Indian Ocean in the 21st century, and how those arrangements will affect US legitimacy and power globally. Due to his colorful writing, and the clear organization of the book itself, Kaplan paints a portrait that entices the reader to envision the Indian Ocean as the theatre of a vast network of strategic poles, where both conflict and cooperation emerge in a dynamic interplay as emerging countries develop, and older ones fade into more supportive roles.
Felicia Graham is Managing Editor of Oil Diplomacy
© Glamma Productions Inc 2012