Sunday, March 22, 2009

Great Powers and the Indian Ocean

Robert Kaplan's lead article at the latest issue of Foreign Affairs is a classic, "Center Stage for the 21st Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean":

Indian Ocean

The greater Indian Ocean region encompasses the entire arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Although the Arabs and the Persians are known to Westerners primarily as desert peoples, they have also been great seafarers. In the Middle Ages, they sailed from Arabia to China; proselytizing along the way, they spread their faith through sea-based commerce. Today, the western reaches of the Indian Ocean include the tinderboxes of Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan -- constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug smuggling. Hundreds of millions of Muslims -- the legacy of those medieval conversions -- live along the Indian Ocean's eastern edges, in India and Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Indian Ocean is dominated by two immense bays, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, near the top of which are two of the least stable countries in the world: Pakistan and Myanmar (also known as Burma). State collapse or regime change in Pakistan would affect its neighbors by empowering Baluchi and Sindhi separatists seeking closer links to India and Iran. Likewise, the collapse of the junta in Myanmar -- where competition over energy and natural resources between China and India looms -- would threaten economies nearby and require a massive seaborne humanitarian intervention. On the other hand, the advent of a more liberal regime in Myanmar would undermine China's dominant position there, boost Indian influence, and quicken regional economic integration.

In other words, more than just a geographic feature, the Indian Ocean is also an idea. It combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the rise of India and China to reveal a multilayered, multipolar world. The dramatic economic growth of India and China has been duly noted, but the equally dramatic military ramifications of this development have not. India's and China's great-power aspirations, as well as their quests for energy security, have compelled the two countries "to redirect their gazes from land to the seas," according to James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, associate professors of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. And the very fact that they are focusing on their sea power indicates how much more self-confident they feel on land. And so a map of the Indian Ocean exposes the contours of power politics in the twenty-first century.

Yet this is still an environment in which the United States will have to keep the peace and help guard the global commons -- interdicting terrorists, pirates, and smugglers; providing humanitarian assistance; managing the competition between India and China. It will have to do so not, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, as a land-based, in-your-face meddler, leaning on far-flung army divisions at risk of getting caught up in sectarian conflict, but as a sea-based balancer lurking just over the horizon. Sea power has always been less threatening than land power: as the cliché goes, navies make port visits, and armies invade. Ships take a long time to get to a war zone, allowing diplomacy to work its magic. And as the U.S. response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean showed, with most sailors and marines returning to their ships each night, navies can exert great influence on shore while leaving a small footprint. The more the United States becomes a maritime hegemon, as opposed to a land-based one, the less threatening it will seem to others.

Moreover, precisely because India and China are emphasizing their sea power, the job of managing their peaceful rise will fall on the U.S. Navy to a significant extent. There will surely be tensions between the three navies, especially as the gaps in their relative strength begin to close. But even if the comparative size of the U.S. Navy decreases in the decades ahead, the United States will remain the one great power from outside the Indian Ocean region with a major presence there - a unique position that will give it the leverage to act as a broker between India and China in their own backyard. To understand this dynamic, one must look at the region from a maritime perspective.
Readers can access the full article at Foreign Affairs, but they've revamped their website, and free articles require registration (especially recommended for regulars of American Power). I rarely post subscription-only essays, but if I do, I'll make the key sections of articles available at my posts.

Image Credit: Foreign Affairs.


The Griper said...

ahhhh, problems, problems and everybody looking to the United States to be the solution. I wonder when or if the time will ever come that people realize that the United States is not God and that they need to take responsibility for their own problems and leave us to solve our own?

good post, professor.

Tejaswy said...

The String of pearls as the Americans calls it,China is moving into indias backyard....India has to do something,this is not easy with the latest report of the sri lankan F minister visiting china in some secret talks,,,no not good not good
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