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Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert Kaplan

For 800 years, the lines of global commerce did not lie across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, but between the various communities bordering the Indian Ocean. Arab sailors created a network of trade routes fanning out from the trading sultanate of Oman to the eastern coast of Africa and as far as the Indonesian archipelago. These traders not only transported goods, but also their culture: Islam was spread to Zanzibar and Indonesia in Arabian dhows. This was globalization in the pre-modern era, superseded by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans a few hundred years ago.

Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert Kaplan
Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Robert Kaplan (Random House, October 2010)

In Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Robert Kaplan argues that the perceived diminished significance of the Indian Ocean is a historical anomaly, and its growing importance in recent years is merely the region reclaiming its former commercial and geopolitical stature. Kaplan takes his readers on a journey that starts in Oman, the old trading kingdom of the Arabian peninsula, through India, Burma and Indonesia, before looping back to explore the African coast in Somalia and Zanzibar. Kaplan describes each stop in a synthesis of political analysis, historical explanation and awestruck travelogue, and develops his prescriptions for American policy independently for each chapter.

However, each of these disparate chapters are written in service of a greater theme: the growing importance of the Indian Ocean as a coherent “Region”. The recreation of the old trading networks between the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia will mean that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. Kaplan argues that developments such as Chinese investment in the Pakistani port of Gwadar, the growing economic power of India and the mess of competing interests in Burma all deserve more American focus than he thinks they are receiving. He argues indeed that the Indian Ocean will become the center of foreign policy: it is where the competition between the United States and China will play out, and it will be a region which grows into a political power in its own right.

It often seems that American foreign policy has a problem of focus: the United States is perhaps the only country with global interests, yet has difficulty in focusing on more than a couple of major issues at any one time. America’s short-term focus on Islamic terrorism and its fears over China extending its power into the South China Sea and into the Pacific are aspects of this problem. As a result, the United States risks missing important developments happening elsewhere, a problem that Kaplan hopes to remedy, at least for the Indian Ocean, with Monsoon.

Monsoon’s insights need not be only applied to American foreign policy. Those countries that succeed in the Indian Ocean will do so in no small part due to this growing network. India’s strength is increasing not only because of its size, population ands national economy, but because of the developing links between India and the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. The success of each country in this network relies on the success of the network as a whole.

China stands apart geographically from this growing trade network. Although China clearly has interests in the Indian Ocean, its success is not the same as the success of the Indian Ocean. Kaplan says that the Indian Ocean may be where the competition between China and America will be most pronounced, but the region’s growing strength may run counter to China’s (and America’s) interests.

Kaplan’s conclusions can be applied more generally and foresee a future in which regional powers within regional blocs have considerably more sway, such present and future superpowers America or China notwithstanding. In the post-war and especially post-Cold War period, each country’s bilateral relationship with the United States might have been significant more important than any other. This is no longer necessarily true: relationships within Europe may now be more important than any individual country’s relations with the U.S.

It is no longer going to be possible for any country to view the world solely as a set of bilateral relationships.

Originally from Hong Kong, Nicholas Gordon (as of 2009) attends university in the United States.