January 16, 2013

Monsoon by Robert Kaplan (Book Review)

I'm pleased to share with Azanian Sea readers a guest post from Dr. Fahad Bishara. Fahad is a Prize Fellow in Economics, History and Politics at Harvard University's Center for History and Economics, and an Assistant Professor at the College of William and Mary. His current research traces the legal transformation of the Western Indian Ocean through the Arab and Indian settlement and commercialization of the East African coast during the nineteenth century. He received his Ph.D. in History from Duke University in 2012, and holds an M.A. in Arab Gulf Studies from the University of Exeter. Here he reviews Robert Kaplan's recent work on the Indian Ocean. 

Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. Random House. 366 pp. 2010. $28
Review by Fahad Ahmad Bishara (Center for History and Economics, Harvard University)

Historians of the Indian Ocean, and students of world history more broadly, are by now perhaps familiar with the story of the Chinese admiral Zheng He, who in the early 15th century sailed around the Indian Ocean with a fleet of more than 200 ships, reaching Southeast Asia, East Africa, and even Arabia. Those who know the story, however, have a hard time understanding its historical significance, let alone its contemporary relevance.

Enter Robert Kaplan, seasoned journalist, history aficionado and traveler extraordinaire. The veteran journalist has spent the past two decades or so writing on American military campaigns in the Middle East, the Balkans crises, and world politics more broadly, and has spent even an even longer time as a foreign correspondent covering the Cold War and the Iran-Iraq war. Kaplan’s latest work, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power extends his time-tested mixture of travelogue, history, journalism, and strategic analysis – and to good effect.

Those who pick up Monsoon are in for something of a treat. With delightful prose and insightful analysis, Kaplan takes his readers on a tour of the Indian Ocean, stopping at some of its lesser-known (but, as he makes abundantly clear, no less important) port cities: Gwadar (in Pakistan), Chittagong (in Burma), and Hambantota (in Sri Lanka), to name just a few. For each, Kaplan is able to pull together a remarkably clear blend of history, anecdote, and analysis, and the reader leaves each chapter with a rather strong grasp of each port city’s past, present and future. His discussion of Gwadar, for example, highlights the port city’s Omani past, while situating its troubled place within the Pakistani nation-state, and suggesting how the ongoing development of a Chinese container port there might reshape both its present situation and its understanding of its own history.

Sandwiching these vignettes are more thematic reflections. Some are on regional history – Arab-Islamic expansion in the Indian Ocean, Zheng He’s voyage and British India all get the full treatment – and other times on more contemporary matters like the muted Sino-Indian jostling that characterizes much of the region’s political economy. Individually, they seem gratuitous; but together, they form the broader context and background, cluing us in to how Kaplan imagines the Indian Ocean as a unified space – an idea, as much a geographic feature, he reminds us.

Over the course of several chapters, the big picture begins to emerge – one in which China’s tentacles slowly make their way across the water to the Persian Gulf, East Africa, and South and Southeast Asia, binding them together into a new world system, to borrow Immanuel Wallersein’s provocative concept. In return for its oil, the Gulf receives a steady stream of Chinese manufactures; and for allowing Chinese companies to build a network of ports, governments around the Indian Ocean are compensated with development projects – highways, hospitals, and more – all gratis. Throughout the process, China is careful to stay below the radar – it even refuses to run the very ports it builds, preferring to allow the Singaporeans to do it instead.  This, then, is no plan for Chinese world domination; rather, it is a regional infrastructure built to ensure that China’s insatiable thirst for energy is met and its goods have a secured market. But, as Kaplan makes clear throughout, this is not without its political consequences, both domestic and international.

For all of its strengths, Monsoon can be a frustrating read. Those who read the entire volume are likely to be left wondering what they had just gone through. While Monsoon’s individual vignettes are thorough, stimulating and thought-provoking, the author does little to connect the dots; the book is not too much more than the sum of its parts. Readers are left to guess as to what Zanzibar has to do with Burma, or why a discussion of Gwadar necessarily precedes Gujarat; they get a vivid picture of politics and economics around the Indian Ocean, but little by way of a forceful argument. Kaplan seems to prefer the slow-cooker approach, dropping in bits and pieces of his overall argument and letting them stew together with his travel writing and history. Those looking for an argument presented neatly on a single platter will be disappointed.

Perhaps a more glaring shortcoming is Kaplan’s failure to deliver on the second half of the book’s title. Beyond hanging thoughts and throwaway sentences that pepper the volume, Kaplan does nothing to explain how the United States fits into the picture, let alone establish the Indian Ocean as “the essential place to contemplate the future of U.S. power.” Policy buffs will undoubtedly be left unhappy with the book’s unfulfilled promises.

So then what are we left with? A great deal, actually. Beyond enriching vignettes, the book illuminates the reorientations of different parts of  the Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia towards China. Indeed, if there is a protagonist to the book at all, it is Chinese capital, which has managed to forge a world of its own, replete with protected sea routes and eager markets. It might not be Zheng He all over again, but it’s certainly something close – and Kaplan does not fail to impress upon his readers the importance of seeing the region in light of its history.

All told, Kaplan has thus given us a thoughtful, balanced and readable – though not always entirely coherent – analysis of the modern Indian Ocean. Those looking to assign students a readable book on the modern Indian Ocean with which to cap a history course, then, can do a lot worse than Kaplan’s Monsoon. The book’s structure makes it easy to pull out chapters to assign, and the prose is both informative and eminently readable – which in itself is a remarkable feat.


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