Strategic scenarios

Print edition : February 11, 2011

A reflection on the strategic situation in the greater Indian Ocean in the light of the diminishing U.S. influence in the region.

ROBERT KAPLAN is a travel writer and a world affairs expert. He visits spots that are important for the United States' security and strategic interests, generally those that are beyond the normal experience of most Americans. His latest work, Monsoon The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, is in line with this tradition. Kaplan now covers Monsoon Asia, the region spanning Oman and Indonesia. This region, with 37 countries and a third of the world's population, he says, will demographically and strategically be the hub of the 21st century world, marking a shift from the West, which has been the centre of world history for the past few centuries.

Kaplan looks at the strategic situation in the greater Indian Ocean in the light of the diminishing U.S. influence in the region and the inexorable rise of China and India as economic and military powerhouses. Their triangular relationship is the core of the book.

The importance of Monsoon Asia rests on three factors: it is the centre of a tense dialogue between the West and Islam; it has the world's major energy producers and its important sea routes; and, above all, it will see the emergence of India and China as major role players in world affairs, with their power being asserted on land and sea.

Kaplan embarks on a journey to study at first hand the dynamics of Monsoon Asia and the challenges that face U.S. interests. He starts from Oman and rediscovers the central role played by it, over a few millennia, in maintaining maritime connectivities between the civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran and India. Kaplan notes Islam's historic inter-mingling and co-existence with Hinduism and Buddhism in the Indian Ocean, and the central role of the Muslim trading system until the advent of Vasco da Gama at the end of the 15th century.

Kaplan then moves on to Baluchistan and Sindh, discussing at length the importance of the Chinese-constructed port at Gwadar, even as he meditates on Pakistan's own internal vulnerabilities. Gwadar, when completed, could either become a new silk-route nexus or provide an impetus to Pakistan's failure as a state, with the project becoming a lightning rod for Baluchi hatred of Punjabi-ruled Pakistan.

Throughout his travels in Monsoon Asia, Kaplan witnesses this leitmotif of challenge and opportunity. In the case of Pakistan, if all goes well, it could emerge as a major Asian energy corridor linking the hydrocarbon resources of the Gulf with markets in China and the Central Asian oil and gas resources with markets in South and South-East Asia. The alternative is that Pakistan will remain an unstable polity, with burgeoning extremist elements corroding the fabric of the state and pushing it towards failure and collapse.

This dichotomy is repeated in Gujarat in India, where Kaplan sees rampant capitalism set against deep ethnic and religious tensions. Gujarat epitomises the spirit of modern India as also a cautionary tale of what could go wrong. Kaplan recognises that the threat to India's democratic and secular order is quite fierce, but still believes that India's democratic spirit will cope successfully with this challenge.

In New Delhi, Kaplan has a cockpit view both of India's domestic political, economic and social problems and of its soaring aspirations. India's strategic thinkers, he finds, are deeply conscious of the role the country will play in this century, and, specifically, their commitment to building a navy that will project its power across the Indian Ocean and beyond. Yet, these aspirations could fail owing to the grinding poverty of the masses, fissiparous agitations in different parts of the country and the increasing divide between Hindus and Muslims. Kaplan's contemporary India is an amalgam of a determined ambition with a prudent sense of tragedy.

Bangladesh is a land of poverty, a fragile democracy with a weak central authority facing the assault of radical Islam. Kolkata, with its extreme poverty that is dull, numb, devoid of meaning and monotonous, shares some of these characteristics. But, there is hope: with ancient and medieval trade routes re-emerging, Kolkata could regain its hinterland and link itself once more with Bangladesh, the north-eastern region of India, and China.

In Indonesia, Kaplan is fascinated by the country's Islam as the top layer of a richly intricate culture. He celebrates the moderate and eclectic character of Indonesian Islam but is worried that the hard, desert-based Islam of West Asia might erode the accommodative ethos of this country. He remains hopeful though, quoting an Iraqi intellectual: When I travel to Syria and Iraq, I feel that I see Islam's past, but when I travel to Indonesia, I feel that I see its future.

Kaplan's extensive writings over 26 years indicate an evolution in his thinking from an unabashed imperialist rooting for U.S. hegemony to a more sober and reflective observer deeply conscious of U.S. military and political setbacks in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine.

This reflective Kaplan gets a number of points right. He points out that over the long term the future in Monsoon Asia will be one of greater integration in which the U.S. will have little or no role. He sees in Asia a non-Western mold of astonishing inter-dependence, and yet ferociously guarded sovereignty, with militaries growing alongside economies. The former gung-ho imperialist and advocate of U.S. military interventions now asks for sensitivity: the future of American power, he points out, necessitates an understanding of other people's historical experiences, not just its own.

While the U.S. power and influence in Asia is diminishing, Kaplan remains unsure about what the future holds for the region and about the U.S. position in it. Page after page, he moves from optimism to despair, envisaging at times an era of cooperation and, at other times, of strife and violence. This is not surprising since the region itself is in such turbulence and its outlook is so uncertain that pendulum-like swings possibly remain the only option for the commentator. Every situation is possible: you will have an ugly Sino-Indian rivalry across Asia that will devour resources and encourage conflict. Alternatively, there will be a situation in which India's and China's mutual dependence on the same sea lanes could also lead to an alliance between them, that, in some circumstances, might be implicitly hostile to the United States.

An October 2001 photograph of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier at an undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean. U.S. policies have served to divide Asia, foment discord and, with the American propensity to pursue the military option, leave behind a trail of discord and devastation.-RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP

There is considerable logic in the situation of Sino-Indian cooperation based on common interests with regard to Islamic extremism; terrorism; piracy; energy exploration, development and pipelines; and, above all, economic cooperation covering trade, investments and joint ventures, both bilateral and in third countries. Kaplan sees a strong likelihood of this scenario: The two Asian demographic behemoths (are) bound to cooperate at some basic and crucial level, adding complexity to their relationship, and thus making it unclear whether or not China would ever be so provocative as to establish overt naval bases in the Indian Ocean.

Kaplan accepts that India will never officially join the U.S. in any anti-Chinese alliance; that given its strong sense of nationhood and its independent streak, it will seek to assert power in its own right. At the same time, a number of factors will also propel India towards the U.S. (such as extremism, terrorism and freedom of sea lanes). Kaplan contends that India, while continuing to be non-aligned, will generally maintain a pro-U.S. tilt, just as it had a pro-Moscow tilt during the Cold War.

At the same time, the U.S., with strong diplomatic and economic ties already in place, will have considerable interest in working with China. It will have to carefully nurse these ties at all times, so as not to disrupt them by pursuing policies in specific areas (Taiwan, South-East Asia, Malacca, Myanmar) that can threaten crucial Chinese interests.

The diplomatic effort prescribed by Kaplan is subtlety and nuanced ties with China and India: as the unipolar world fades into the past, Sino-U.S. cooperation can lead to a cohesive Asia-centric alliance system, at the core of which will be a U.S.-India-China condominium on the basis of common interests in the matter of handling piracy, terrorism, natural disasters and energy.

Kaplan's analysis is welcome for its candour in describing the U.S.' diminishing power, role and influence, and his advocacy that the U.S. work more cooperatively and sensitively with the principal Asian powers in benign, mutually beneficial arrangements. However, three reality checks are necessary.

First, while several parts of Asia are in turmoil, there are also in place very substantial connectivities across the continent, which reflect a revival of the old silk routes. Asian countries are witnessing high growth rates so that, today the bulk of Asian oil and gas is consumed within Asia. Intra-Asian trade links now constitute the most substantial engagements for most Asian countries. Investments within Asia, nascent at this stage, indicate a clear trend, particularly as all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, storehouses of investible surpluses, are pursuing robust Look-East policies. The logic of comparative economic advantage amid burgeoning economic success is slowly but surely replacing traditional political animosities and could in time even end then. The short point is that Monsoon Asia is not waiting for a U.S. role to fulfil its own destiny; it has already embarked on it, and it is for the U.S. to create space and fit in benignly.

This leads to the second point: for far too long, U.S. policies have served to divide Asia, foment discord and, with the American propensity to pursue the military option, leave behind a trail of discord and devastation. For the U.S. to now play a constructive role in Asia, it would need to fundamentally rework its mindset and policy approaches, aspects that are not examined or even mentioned by Kaplan. The main change required of the U.S. would be to work with other countries on the basis of equality and mutual respect, something it has hardly ever done even with its allies. Flowing from this, it would have to engage with them through diplomatic effort rather than intimidation and war. This would require getting rid of perennial hate-figures such as Iran, given that the 30-year U.S.-Iran confrontation has been a major source of instability in West Asian and world affairs.

CONSTRUCTIVE U.S. ROLE

This leads to the third reality check on Kaplan's scenario of a constructive U.S. role in Monsoon Asia. Kaplan has conveniently omitted all discussion of U.S. policy on and role in West Asia. Early in the book, he notes that the U.S. may not control events inside the big sandbox' of the Middle East, and, surprisingly, suggests that the U.S. can compensate for this obvious shortcoming by dominating the door in and out of this sandbox, that is, Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb. This suggestion is both ignorant and embarrassing. It is difficult to understand how Kaplan could fail to see that the Asian security scenario from Palestine to Pakistan is today inextricably linked, and Asian stability cannot be obtained through a piecemeal approach. Clearly, Kaplan does not wish to enter the West Asian imbroglio since, in the pursuit of Asian peace and U.S. interests, he would, in the face of strident Israeli opposition, have to recommend a more active U.S. role in the peace process and a more even-handed approach, which would deprive Israel of the freedom it currently enjoys to stall all peace initiatives, expand settlements in the occupied areas, and wreak havoc and destruction on the Palestinian people at will.

The proposed change of mindset and approach would also require the U.S. to review its ties with the Muslim world, described by Kaplan (as also Bernard Lewis, Huntington and many other U.S. writers) with the broad-brush, undifferentiated, monochrome label of Islam. Even as the battle against extremism and terror is supported across the Muslim world, Islamophobia is spreading rapidly in the U.S. and Europe and, unless checked, will doom all possibility of a benign future in Asia. Restraining Israeli depredations and addressing the issue of Palestine are central to combating radical Islam, a point that goes unmentioned in the book.

In spite of all the current differences and disputes and uncertainties about the future we might have in Asia, one reality is obvious and will not be reversed: the age of Western imperialism is truly over. Throughout the book, Kaplan quotes from The Lusiads by the Portuguese poet Luiz Vaz Camoes, who in the 16th century celebrated the achievements of Portugal's early mariners and statesmen who, through ruthless messianic violence, had subjugated for a while the entire Indian Ocean region. One quotation is relevant for all those who still have dreams of imperialist grandeur:

Delusions are possessing you, Already, ferocity and brute force Are labeled strength and valour.

Talmiz Ahmad, an Indian diplomat, is the author of Children of Abraham at War The Clash of Messianic Militarisms. The views expressed here are his own.

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