Consulting the crystal ball: Kaplan’s Monsoon

Perhaps the thing I like the most about having cable TV is every weekend I can watch Book TV and be treated to lectures and interviews featuring  interesting authors. Because of this, every so often I encounter an author who captivates me so much I can’t wait to run out and beg, borrow or steal his or her latest book. A few months ago, Book TV aired Robert Kaplan’s recent lecture at the US Naval War College on the growing political and economic importance of the Indian Ocean region, as spelled out in his 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. After being held virtually spellbound by his detailed descriptions of not just recent developments in this region and their projected consequences, but also its long history of cross oceanic trade and shared cultural influences, at the program’s conclusion I immediately grabbed my laptop, logged on to my account at the public library and placed a hold on Kaplan’s book. Not long ago I picked it up from the hold shelf, took it home and eagerly devoured it. Needless to say, Monsoon is a superb book.

Kaplan, a frequent contributor to Atlantic Monthly magazine as well the author of numerous books including The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War and Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History takes the reader on a sweeping and detailed journey throughout the many countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Well written and equally well researched, Kaplan’s in-depth assessment of this region’s growing importance, much like the ocean which bears its name, is as deep as it is wide. Combining travelogue, investigative journalism, historical narrative and political analysis, Kaplan’s Monsoon is a readable and fascinating book which addresses just why and how events in the Indian Ocean littoral will impact the world in the coming years.

Home to a huge chunk of the earth’s population, almost for that reason alone this region must be taken seriously. Home to such countries as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia the numbers themselves jump out at you:

  • While the Indian state of Gujarat has only 5 per cent of India’s overall population, it has more people than the entire nation of South Korea.
  • Bangladesh, while roughly the same size as the American state of Iowa, is home to a population almost half that of the entire United States.
  • Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia has a population of almost 27 million, making it three times more populous than New York City.
  • Currently there are over 10 million economic refugees from Bangladesh living in India.
  • Burma or Myanmar while having a modest population of 55 million when compared to some of its more populous neighbors, nonetheless has a standing army of over 400,000 troops making it one of the largest in the world.

But foremost, as India and China both grow into a world economic powers, their quest for raw materials and markets will show the rest of the world the importance of the Indian Ocean trade routes. As oil flows east from the Middle East east and finished products west from Asia, sea lanes and choke points will need to be protected from both warring nations and lawless pirates, necessitating the existence of not just sizeable merchant fleets but more importantly strong navies. In order to bypass potential choke points such as the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, pipelines will be a desired premium, but with many of these future pipelines traversing what are now rebellious and unstable areas, up and coming powers such as China and India will seek new ways to pacify or at least promote stability in these currently restless regions. While some nations like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma prefer to impose order militarily, crushing local revolts in efforts to create “pro business” conditions for pipelines and shipping harbors, Indonesia’s government after years of centralized authoritarian rule currently enjoys a great deal of success and stability by allowing its far-flung provinces a significant degree of autonomy. Just as the quest for markets and resources will impact this region’s future, so will the need for stability and the ability to project security and political influence across this populous, nuclearized and heavily Islamic part of the world.

There are many things I liked about Kaplan’s book. First, content not to be a mere “armchair analyst” he personally visited each country he discussed in Monsoon. Second, the book contains a surprising amount of history concerning the early seafaring powers that explored and exploited this region, namely the Portuguese, English, Dutch and Arabs, which although interesting in itself, helped put the region’s importance in a greater historical perspective. Lastly, Monsoon is full of little “I didn’t know that” tidbits such as:

  • The Arab kingdom of Oman is ruled by what some might consider an enlightened despot, who despite his available wealth and power instead chooses to live a modest lifestyle as an elderly bachelor. British educated and fluent in both English and Arabic, the ruling Sultan can intelligently debate both sides of the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is reported to be generally loved by his subjects.
  • Currently, there are several former American intelligence officers covertly assisting ethnic insurgent groups in Burma. Interestingly enough, they are the sons of former missionaries who ministered in that country in years past.
  • Farsi or Persian was the lingua franca of India before the British replaced it with English starting in the 18th century.
  • Robert Clive, a British officer with the East India Company, starting at the tender age of 26 and with virtually no prior military experience, almost singlehandedly orchestrated Britain’s conquest of India.

If you haven’t guessed by now, Monsoon is a fantastic book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you have any interest in foreign affairs, international economics or Asian history, I’d highly recommend Kaplan’s book. I’d also recommend watching his lecture, which can be accessed here via Book TV’s rather excellent website.

While no crystal ball is perfect, in my humble opinion I have a feeling Kaplan’s Monsoon comes pretty darn close. And it entertains.

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