Here's the promised forward-looking Part 2 to the historical book reviews from Part 1.

In the previous part of this series, I wrote about some of the history of the Indian Ocean. In this part, I'll be looking at the geopolitical outlook of the region (including the South China Sea as it it integrally connected to the Indian Ocean and is also a monsoon sea). As with last time, I'll be drawing on a couple of books I read: Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis (published in 2017) and Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert Kaplan (published in 2010). Both authors have views that I assume are fairly typical in the American foreign policy establishment, since one is a retired admiral and the other has been a fellow at foreign policy think-tanks. Because, unlike history, current events can have a lot of developments in the time since these books were published, this post will also incorporate a lot of online information as updates. It is also worth keeping in mind that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated some trends and stalled others.

First of all, since a picture is worth a thousand words, this screenshot (source) tells you why you should care about the Indian Ocean and the countries that border it.

From MarineTraffic.com. The high-demand routes are obvious. Red are tankers, green are cargo ships, and orange are fishing vessels. 

Admiral Stavridis emphasizes the large fraction of global shipping that takes place on the Indian Ocean:

The Indian Ocean, while admittedly smaller than the Atlantic or the Pacific, consists of nearly a quarter of the waters on the globe, especially when one counts its major subordinate seas, the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. Across its vast expanse move 50 percent of all shipping and containers and 70 percent of all oil, making it quite literally the crossroads of globalization. Nearly forty nations border it, with more than a third of the world’s population. And it is the beating heart of the Islamic world, with Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf States all having coastal access to the Indian Ocean. More than 90 percent of the world’s Islamic population is in this massive catchment basin. And it is highly militarized and constantly in a high state of tension. The highest potential nuclear conflict in the world today is between Pakistan and India—two huge, capable, professional, and nuclear-capable militaries. Iran is an adventurist state with an innovative and battle-trained military force. Many of the other nations along the littoral have internal conflicts and significant chaos along their borders, particularly in East Africa. Piracy, while reduced over the past several years, remains a threat both along the coast of East Africa and in the Strait of Malacca connecting the Indian Ocean with the Pacific.

Kaplan also provides statistics on the amount of oil that moves through the Strait of Malacca, which he describes as:

the Fulda Gap of the twenty-first-century multi-polar world, the place where almost all of the shipping lanes between the Red Sea and the Sea of Japan converge at the most vital choke point of world commerce; where the spheres of naval influence of India and China meet; where the Indian Ocean joins the western Pacific.

Of the overall region, he says:

It is my contention that the Greater Indian Ocean, stretching eastward from the Horn of Africa past the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian Subcontinent, all the way to the Indonesian archipelago and beyond, may comprise a map as iconic to the new century as Europe was to the last one.

With the importance of the topic established, I'm going to go through some things I learned from each book (with updates or additional commentary where suitable) then wrap up with some other interesting material about the region.

The most interesting part of Sea Power is the author. Adm. Stavridis worked his way up from a junior officer to a stint as the Supreme Commander of NATO. The book contains many of his impressions and recollections of the places he's sailed and the people he's met. His personal experiences include being present at a meeting between Donald Rumsfeld and Lee Kuan Yew, and having as a friend a Turkish General who was arrested by the Erdogan regime for alleged sedition. Most of the chapters of Sea Power (up until the end where it turns to recommendations for future US naval policy) focus on a particular ocean and combine these kinds of career recollections with a brief and breezy overview of the naval history there, followed by his perspective on the current geopolitical situation (primarily as it relates to challenges and opportunities for the US Navy). The Indian Ocean and South China Sea only comprise a portion of this book, but it will be my focus here, although Adm. Stavridis certainly has plenty to say about the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic that was also of interest.

One of the themes of Sea Power is the way in which the world's oceans are connected but also separate. I saw the following map on Twitter and added a few labels to illustrate this:

The sea is one. 

The section on the Indian Ocean gives his impressions of transiting the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal, and visiting ports of Manama (the capital of Bahrain and the base of the US Fifth Fleet), Singapore, and Diego Garcia. He had tours of duty in the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa; he was also involved in relief efforts following the tsunami of 2004. Because I've recently read books about the history of this region, I found his treatment of it to be kind of sparse. For example, Stavridis writes that,

even the tributary seas—the Arabian/Persian Gulf and the Red Sea—have become particularly important in a geopolitical sense only in the post–World War II era with the rise of global shipping and the export of oil from the Gulf region.

In contrast, the previous entry in this series shows that they were frequently key axes of global trade. Although from his perspective as a military man, perhaps it is fair to admit that much of that trade in historical eras was in luxuries (spices and silks, for example) whereas now it is in necessities and thus has become an area vital to logistics and strategic considerations.

His contrasting impressions of the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean from a sailor's perspective stood out:

Frankly, not much has really changed down through the centuries in the Arabian Gulf. Just as the geography of the Indian Ocean is one of openness and seemingly limitless horizons, the Arabian Gulf is tight, confined, constrained, and shallow—all things a sailor hates. That trade has crossed the Gulf more or less perpetually has not reduced its fundamental danger to those who would fight in its tight spaces.

Here's Admiral Stavridis' summary of some of the key geopolitical issues in the Indian Ocean. He makes it clear that he sees it being in US interest to avoid open war between India and Pakistan or between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but such tensions need to be kept in view.  

There are other flashpoints centered in the Indian Ocean beyond India and Pakistan. There is no love lost between China and India in the region, particularly as China continues to expand its commercial influence and basing throughout the Indian Ocean littoral. There is piratical activity along the East African littoral and throughout the western Indonesian archipelago. In the Arabian/Persian Gulf, the Sunni-Shi’a conflict continues to play out at sea as it does ashore. Yemen is on fire in a manifestation of Sunni-Shi’a conflict as Houthi rebels seek dominance of the poverty-stricken nation

When it comes to the South China Sea, here's part of his description of its history:

As in the Indian Ocean, the discovery of how to harness the power of the monsoons provided a significant impetus to early trading. Settlements in southern China and the Mekong Delta of the Funan Empire were among the first trading stations in the region. Over time in the first millennium A.D., the rivalry between what are today China and Vietnam first manifested itself as the cultures came into conflict.

At the present, the South China Sea is an area of rising tensions, as China builds artificial islands (which he describes as being basically like permanent aircraft carriers) to assert its claims and project its power.

The final leitmotif of the South China Sea over the past two decades is the geopolitical contest between an outsize China that is rising inexorably and the handful of small but dynamic nations that share the littoral of the South China Sea with their massive and increasingly assertive neighbor.

Admiral Stavridis makes reference to the strategic thinking of Alfred Thayer Mahan:

The basic theory of Mahan’s body of work is that national power derives from engagement via the world’s oceans along three key vectors: production (which leads to the need for international trade and commerce), shipping (both merchant and naval), and colonies and alliances (spread across the globe, forming a network of bases from which to project sea power).

Based on this rubric, here are some of the recommendations he makes:

The major body of water the greatest distance from the United States, literally on the other side of the world, is the Indian Ocean. Here our strategy must first and foremost take into account the emerging superpower India. We should do all we can diplomatically, culturally, militarily, politically, and diplomatically to strengthen our ties with India. This should particularly include cooperating in the maritime realm, including a new series of exercises and training with the Indian navy;

Such exercises are taking place, as you'll see below. When it comes to the South China Sea, he has a wishlist of bases for the US Navy:

We should maintain a network of bases and access agreements around the littoral of the South China Sea. The logical places to consider are in the east (hopefully the Philippines, perhaps even a return to Subic Bay), the west (in Vietnam, Cam Ranh Bay is a logical spot), and the south (Singapore, where we already have a robust presence, makes the most sense). In the north, we should continue to explore a strong refueling and resupply arrangement with Taiwan, even if this makes China upset (which it will). With a package of four bases, or at least four significant agreements for access and resupply, we could operate quite freely in the region.

His recommendations also include finding areas of common interest for strategic cooperation, even with geopolitical rivals. The premiere example of this was the mission (which he had a prominent role in) to combat Somali piracy. Overfishing (a topic I've visited before) is another issue where international cooperation could be fruitful.

An increasingly important piece of infrastructure is subsea cables, and the Admiral sees them as something navies might be called on to defend more in the future.

Before I leave Sea Power behind, I wanted to share this quote about Adm. Stavridis' impressions of a major increase in ocean traffic:

What I felt over the forty years of my career was the way the oceans became more and more full; by some estimates there are four to six times more ships plying the world’s oceans than there were some thirty years ago.

Kaplan's book is entirely within the geographic scope of this post, so I'll spend more time on it than I did on Stavridis' (who even recommended Monsoon). It generally gives a big picture view of Asian geopolitics in the 21st century; although the focus is on the Indian Ocean and the adjoining Indonesian archipelago, enough strategic threads cross this theatre to even tie-in some issues related to land-locked Central Asia. Since Monsoon was published 10 years ago, enough time has passed to provide some initial commentary on how well Kaplan's predictions and analysis has held up, so that will be a major aspect to my review.

Monsoon starts in Oman and proceeds roughly clockwise around the Indian Ocean. The locations Kaplan visits include some in Pakistan and India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia, and Tanzania. In the following paragraphs, I'll note some interesting things I learned, along with follow-up on how things have unfolded over the past decade.

Kaplan describes Oman as being in tension between the cosmopolitan influence of being located by the ocean and tribal influences from the desert:

like other places on and near the Arabian Sea—Somalia, the Gulf sheikhdoms, the provinces of Baluchistan and Sindh in Pakistan, and the northwestern Indian province of Gujarat—Oman constitutes a vibrant albeit thin band of humanity existing between sea and desert, subject to the immense influences of both. ... The liberalizing influence of the ocean never truly penetrated into such a chaotic hinterland. Indeed, the deeper and broader the desert, potentially the more unstable and violent the state.

Its ruler, Sultan Qaboos (who passed away a year ago) is described as an authoritarian but who achieved a lot of development for his country (comparison is made to Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew) and who maintained stability in a volatile region. He was also apparently a capable diplomat.

One former high-ranking American official observed that there is a breadth of strategic thinking to Sultan Qabus that is comparable to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Indeed, the world has been fortunate over the decades to have two such enlightened and capable rulers governing at the two most critical choke points of the Indian Ocean, by the Strait of Hormuz in the west and the Strait of Malacca in the east. It is almost as if, like Lee’s Singapore, Sultan Qabus’s Oman is too small a country for the talents of such a leader.

Starting with Oman gave Kaplan a chance to go over some of the history of the Indian Ocean region, since its merchant community has a long history of operating across the basin and beyond. Most of this was things I was already familiar with from the books I read in Part 1 of this series. In the modern age, Oman has capitalized on its position (outside the Strait of Hormuz, so less vulnerable to traffic bottlenecks or a blockade compared to ports in the Gulf like Dubai) to offer a major transshipment hub at Salalah.

Neighbouring Yemen has been much less successful than Oman, unfortunately. In 2010, Kaplan called it,

the teeming, water-starved tinderbox of Yemen, home to twenty-two million people and eighty million firearms.

In the past decade, the erstwhile president-for-life was pressured to leave during the Arab Spring protests. Negotiations between different factions to establish a new constitutional order eventually failed and a civil war has been ongoing for the past six years.

There were some random facts about Yemen and Oman that I found interesting. One was the mention of falaj irrigation structures. Another was the links from eastern Yemen to other parts of the Indian Ocean world:

Since antiquity, the Wadi Hadhramaut, a hundred-mile-long oasis in southeastern Yemen surrounded by great tracts of desert and stony plateau, has maintained, through caravan routes and Arabian Sea ports, closer relations with India and Indonesia than with other parts of Yemen.

These links included Hadhramis serving as bodyguards to the Nizam of Hyderabad.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Kaplan had some comments about Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia that I feel have held up pretty well over the past decade:

an unconventional zone of Iranian influence stretching from Lebanon to western Afghanistan pitted against both Israel and Saudi Arabia, while a newly Islamic Turkey that is no longer pro-Western rises as a balancing power in its own right.  
Indeed, despite the revolts thus far in the Arab world, the real epochal drama in the Middle East probably won’t come until there is democratically inspired regime change in Iran and/or a regime evolution in Saudi Arabia. Indian Ocean rimland states such as Yemen and Oman are vital in this regard because they constitute Saudi Arabia’s near abroad.

The Indian Ocean has two main sub-basins: the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. In Kaplan's view, each of them is topped with a volatile "pivot state" (Pakistan and Burma) whose trajectory will have significant geopolitical implications. Something that stood out to me was the palpable difference (in his telling) between regions in India and adjacent regions across the border. For example, here is his description of Kolkata (which is far from being the most prosperous or developped area of India):

But when judging a place, it all depends on from where the traveler has arrived. To arrive in Kolkata by bus from Dhaka, the capital of next-door Bangladesh, is like arriving in West Berlin from East Berlin during the Cold War—a trip I made several times. The grayness is gone. Instead of the rusted signage of Dhaka, there is a profusion of giant swanky billboards advertising global products, glowing in the night like backlit computer screens.

All of the countries in this region have continued to develop over the past decade, though. Pakistan had the lowest growth rate, and even its GDP has doubled over the past fifteen years (see these trends, and also these ones on declining infant mortality). In Pakistan, Kaplan visited the states of Baluchistan (sparsely populated relative to the rest of the country, but it contains a lot of mineral and energy resources) and Sindh. Both of these have separatist movements (one Sindhi activist accused the upriver Punjab state of taking too much water from the Indus river before it gets to them, for example); he sees national cohesion as a significant challenge for Pakistan in the future.

After the chapter on Sindh, Monsoon crosses the border to the Indian state of Gujarat. It's another case of contrasting impressions:

To travel to Sindh and then to Gujarat is to comprehend at a very tangible level how Pakistan is a failed state and India a very successful one, with the ability to project economic and military power throughout the Indian Ocean region. And this impression, as imperfect as it may be, is to a significant extent due to the way Modi has governed.

Modi of course is now the Prime Minister of India, but at the time Monsoon was written he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. One of the places where I think Kaplan's journalistic instincts were spot-on was the fact that the book includes an interview with Modi, despite the fact that he was only a state-level politician at the time and despite not featuring too many other interviews (or just as a short quote, rather than a recap of a whole conversation). The picture that emerges is of a leader with nationalistic tendencies who is also a tireless and competent administrator.

Eventually he visited about three thousand of seven thousand villages in the state, developing his own grassroots networks to check on how the state bureaucracy was functioning at the local level, and empowering the lowest reaches of that bureaucracy—those functionaries in most contact with the citizenry—through his slogan, “less government, more governance.” As Atul Tandan, director of the Mudra Institute of Communications in Ahmedabad, told me, “You have to separate Modi’s political ideology from his management ability. Because there is not a hint of corruption about him, Modi is effective because people believe his decisions are only results-oriented.”

He was in charge during the outbreak of religious violence in mass riots in 2002 (his level of responsibility for them is debated in the chapter).

Tolerable inter-communal relations are the sine qua non of Indian stability and ascendancy, for throughout India and particularly in a mercantile state like Gujarat, Hindus and Muslims must interact in business transactions daily. India has more to lose from extremist Islam than arguably any other country in the world. Yet, in Gujarat—as well as in some other places in India—Hindus and Muslims have lately begun to segregate themselves.

While the attention paid to Modi shows foresight given his rise to the highest office in India, Kaplan expressed the opinion that more moderate politics would likely continue on the national level there. In fact, in the decade since Monsoon was written both India and (as we'll see below) China have gotten more assertive and confrontational leaders, with a resultant hardening of national positions. The recent clashes in the Himalayas come to mind. Additionally, a naval exercise between India, Japan, Australia, Singapore, and the US that Kaplan mentions was repeated last year.

I'm very interested in issues of water and energy. So I paid close attention to what Kaplan predicted about trends in India around these resources.

before 2025, India will overtake Japan as the world’s third largest net importer of oil after the United States and China.

This has happened already (the list at the link is for consumption, but India is also third for imports, and the US is behind China by that metric). When it comes to coal, however, I'm less certain he got it right:

And as India must satisfy a population that will be the most populous in the world before the middle of this century, its coal imports from Mozambique, in the southwestern Indian Ocean, are set to increase dramatically, adding to the coal that India already imports from Indian Ocean countries such as South Africa, Indonesia, and Australia.

According to this article, India's use of coal for power generation decreased in 2019 (so too early to be due to the pandemic). It will be interesting to watch this trend. The use of coal appears to be becoming less economically competitive and a decrease in demand in a energy-hungry emerging economy would be a strong confirmation of that.

When it comes to water, Kaplan lists its abundance as a point in Kolkata's favour:

The most extravagant visions are possible for Kolkata because, for the time being, the city has one thing that other Indian cities—and many in the developing world—dangerously lack: sufficient stores of fresh water.

While fresh water is absolutely an invaluable resource, a vibrant economy can also enable lots of measures to mitigate or overcome water shortages. Chennai is a water-stressed city in India but it is in a state with a 77% higher per-capita GDP than Kolkata; some of the initiatives they have to deal with water shortages were featured in a documentary I watched last year. I wouldn't bet on Kolkata leaping past Chennai simply on the basis of having more fresh water available.

Burma is in a position where historic Indian and Chinese spheres of influence overlap.  Its geography also makes it attractive as an outlet to the sea from southwestern China (Yunnan province). Indeed there have been pipelines and a railway constructed. Within Burma, from Monsoon I gather that its layout comprises hill tribes in horseshoe around the central Irrawaddy valley where the majority ethnic Burman live. The hill regions have harboured insurgents and been a major nexus of the global drug trade.

with a third of the country’s population composed of ethnic minorities in its friable borderlands—accounting for seven of Burma’s fourteen states—the demands of the Karens and other minorities truly will come to the fore once the regime does collapse. Democracy will not solve Burma’s dilemma of being a mini-empire of nationalities, even if it does open the door to a compromise.

When Monsoon was written, the military junta was still fully in charge of Burma. That is no longer the case (since 2011), but the above prediction that democracy would be far from a panacea has held up well. Ironically, next door Thailand was a democracy at the time Kaplan was writing but had a coup in 2014, shortly after the Burmese military loosened its grip on power.

Although China doesn't directly border the Indian Ocean, it has a lot of interests and influence there. The Strait of Malacca has at least as much importance to China as the Panama Canal has to the United States, due to its reliance on oil and gas imports from the Middle East (note that energy exports from Western Canada to Asia would not face this bottleneck). I thought it was valuable how Kaplan presented the Chinese perspective of being boxed in along their coastline:

Looking out from China’s Pacific coast on to this First Island Chain, they behold a sort of “Great Wall in reverse,” in the words of Naval War College professors James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara: a well-organized line of American allies, with the equivalent of guard towers on Japan, the Ryukus, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia, all potentially blocking China’s access to the larger ocean.

There are several ways mentioned in Monsoon that China could try to lessen this maritime vulnerability: extending a measure of influence over archipelagos like the Philippines and Indonesia, creating a route through/over the Isthmus of Kra (whether a canal, land bridge, or pipelines + terminals), overland infrastructure into western China (i.e. through Burma, Pakistan, or directly from the gas fields of Central Asia), and a network of friendly ports or naval bases across the Indian Ocean.

At the time of writing, Hu Jintao had the String of Pearls strategy; under Xi Jinping there is the Belt and Road initiative with a larger scope. Kaplan visited a few ports that fit into this strategy and had received Chinese investment: Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyaupkyu in Burma/Myanmar. I checked their traffic on MarineTraffic for the period of Nov 26 - Dec 9 and they had 8, 47, and 4 arrivals respectively. The ongoing pandemic may have contributed to them being not very busy, but for comparison the Canadian ports of Saint John and Halifax had 121 and 163 arrivals, respectively, during the same period.

It needs to be emphasized that, like Admiral Stavridis, Kaplan sees many avenues for cooperation with China (he also mentions fighting piracy). This excerpt gives his nuanced view of the way things could unfold on the seas of Asia:

America’s unipolar moment in the world’s oceans is starting to fade. And as indicated, this is happening as China—America’s most likely peer competitor in the twenty-first century—increasingly translates its economic clout into sea power. ...Therefore, the most likely scenario in my mind for relations with China is something quite nuanced: the United States will both compete and cooperate with China. The American-Chinese rivalry of the future could give new meaning to the word “subtlety,” especially in its economic and diplomatic arrangements. Yet, if this relationship has its hard edges, I expect one of those will be where the two countries’ navies interact: in the Greater Indian Ocean and western Pacific.

The Indian Ocean touches on Africa as well as Asia, and Kaplan doesn't ignore that continent:

And in this increasingly taut web of economic activity, Africa, at the Indian Ocean’s western extremity, is not being left out. Africa’s renewal, however slow and fitful, is being impelled in large measure by investment from the Middle East and Asia. The third world, as it used to be known, is disappearing gradually, as the parts of it that have developed are now concentrating their energies on building up those that have not.

To wrap up my review of Monsoon, here's what Kaplan foresees for the monsoon seas in the 21st century:

A non-Western world of astonishing interdependence and yet ferociously guarded sovereignty, with militaries growing alongside economies, is being tensely woven in the Greater Indian Ocean.

Finally, I have just a few more interesting (hopefully!) things to share on this topic:

This article also covers the strategic geography of maritime Asia:

“The continental offshoot of Europe from the Eurasian land mass enables you to draw a line through it and say: This is your side and this is our side,” Auslin observes. Asia is very different. “It’s oceanic, it’s littoral, its archipelagic, and it’s continental. It just doesn’t break down easily.”

Investor Ray Dalio is expecting a shift to Asia in terms of imperial prominence.

Here is a timelapse video of a container ship crossing through these waters from the Red Sea to Hong Kong. Note how crowded things get around Singapore and Hong Kong:

The following screenshot (source) shows the winds of the winter monsoon (roughly from the northeast) on December 9, 2020:

From Windy.com. The winter monsoon (from the northeast) in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and South China Sea. 

And here's a final quote from Kaplan's book to go with it:

The “monsoon” of which I speak is more than just a storm system (which it sometimes comes across as in the English-language lexicon); it is, too, a life-affirming and beneficial climatic phenomenon, so necessary over the centuries for trade, globalization, unity, and progress. The monsoon is nature writ large, a spectacle of turbulence that suggests the effect of the environment on humankind living in increasingly crowded and fragile conditions in places like Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Permalink