China Expands Vertically, India Horizontally – Chapter I of “Monsoon” by Robert Kaplan

Last week we promised Readers that we would review “Monsoon” by Robert Kaplan. Then we read the book. We realized we had misled our readers somewhat. There is no way we can write one review of “Monsoon”.  To do any justice at all to this important book, we will have to write a few reviews, each on an important subject addressed in this excellent work. 

It is Mr. Kaplan’s 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.”

Why? Mr. Kaplan quotes the late Belgian scholar Charles Verlinden,  “the Indian Ocean is surrounded by not less than thirty-seven countries representing a third of the world’s population” and as Mr. Kaplan adds “extends for more than 80 degrees in latitude and more than 100 degrees in longitude.”

Americans, in particular, are barely aware of the Indian Ocean, Mr. Kaplan writes. We would add that Indians are perhaps even less aware of what Mr. Kaplan describes in “Monsoon”, though it is their own neighborhood. One of our basic tenets is “Geography is History” and nothing demonstrates that the impact of the geography of the Indian Ocean on the history of India.

As Mr. Kaplan writes, “half a millennium ago, Vasco de Gama braved storm and scurvy to round Africa and cross the Indian Ocean to the Indian Subcontinent. Writes the sixteen-century Portuguese poet Luiz Vaz de Camoes about that signal moment:
               This is the land you have been seeking,
               This is India rising before you…..”

How important was India at that time? At that time, the Arabs controlled the overland route from Europe to India. So Christopher Columbus persuaded Queen Isabella of Spain to finance a westward voyage from Spain to India in 1492. Columbus never reached India but in his quest, he discovered America. 

Five years later in 1497, Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa to reach India. This was Europe’s entry into Asia. They displaced the remaining influence of the Chinese Navy established by the expeditions of Zheng He from 1405 to 1431. Within a dozen years of Vasco de Gama’s voyage, the Portuguese captured Malacca and severely disrupted the Ming Empire of China.

Though Mr. Kaplan doesn’t mention these, the Pandya & Chola kingdoms of South India were major naval powers. The Pandya Kingdom were global traders with trading links as far as Rome. Marco Polo described the Pandya kingdom as the “richest in existence” in his 13th century work. The Chola Empire extended across Indonesia to the western part of Australia.

          (Chola Empire – src wikipedia)                       (Zheng He -7th Expedition – src wikipedia)

The Indian Ocean, China & India

Mr. Kaplan writes “40% of seaborne crude oil passes through the Straits of Hormuz at one end of the Indian Ocean and 50% of the world’s merchant fleet capacity passes through the Strait of Malacca at the other end.” He adds, “The combined appetites of China, Japan and South Korea for Persian Gulf oil already make the Strait of Malacca home to half of the world oil flows and close to a quarter of global trade.”

This creates a “Malacca dilemma” for China, as President Hu Jin Tao has termed it. This is why China has embarked on its so-called string-of-pearls strategy. China is constructing a large port and a listening post at Gwador near the entrance of the Straits of Hormuz. Other media sources report that China plans a railway line from Gwador across today’s Pakistan to Gilgit in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir and from there to Kashgar in Xinjiang province. Mr. Kaplan describes China’s build up of a oil port in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, a container port facility in Chittagong in Bangladesh where China could see naval access. Mr. Kaplan writes that China is “building and upgrading commercial and naval bases; constructing road, waterway and pipeline links from the Bay of Bengal to China’s Yunnan Province.” This is crucial to China because “such Indian Ocean ports with north-south road and rail links would help economically liberate landlocked inner China.”

“While China seeks to expand its influence vertically, that is, reaching southward down to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, India seeks to expand its influence horizontally, reaching eastward and westward..”, writes Mr. Kaplan. One clear cut example is the development of the Iranian port of Chah Bahar, closer to the Straits of Hormuz than Gwador in Pakistan. The Chah Bahar port is linked by road to Zahedan, the Iranian city close to the border of Afghanistan. India is building a road between Zahedan to Zaranj-Delaram in Afghanistan’s Nimruz province to link with Afghanistan’s main ring highway system. By this highway and the Chah Bahar port, India has “potentially ended Afghanistan’s reliance on Pakistan for its outlet to the sea.”, Mr. Kaplan writes. Other media sources have described plans to link Chah Bahar through Iran and Central Asia all the way to St. Petersburg in Russia.

     (Chah Bahar, Iran – src wikipedia)                               (Gwador, Balochistan – src wikipedia)

India-built Chah Bahar and China-built Gwador will be in fierce competition with each other for long and deep links into Central Asia. “It is access to the Indian Ocean that will help define future Central Asian Politics” according to S. Frederick Starr quoted by Mr. Kaplan. This competition between the China-Pakistan axis and the Indo-Iranian consortium will make America’s foreign policy more interesting and challenging. “This is one more reason the U.S. attempt to isolate Iran is untenable”, concludes Mr. Kaplan.

This brings Mr. Kaplan to America’s most pressing problem, Afghanistan. Afghanistan sits right in the middle of energy routes between Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Therefore Mr. Kaplan concludes ” stabilizing Afghanistan is about much more than just anti-terrorist war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; it is about securing the future prosperity of the whole of southern Eurasia…”.

We were relieved to read this because that was the topic of our own article in October 2009 titled Afghanistan – It’s Stra
tegic Importance To America

Role of the American Navy

Mr. Kaplan reports that “The U.S. Navy’s new maritime strategy, unveiled in October 2007,….,will henceforth seek a sustained, forward presence in the Indian Ocean and adjacent western Pacific, but less so in the Atlantic.” Read his description of the U.S. Marine Corps “Vision and Strategy” statement, unveiled in June 2008, covering the years to 2025:

  • “The Indian Ocean and its adjacent waters will be a central theater of conflict and competition.”
  • “Along with its continued dominance in the Pacific, the U.S. clearly seeks to be the preeminent South Asian power.”
  • “This signals a momentous* historical shift away from the North Atlantic and Europe.” (emphasis ours)
  • “The United States…..will compensate by trying to dominate the doors in and out….the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb; choke points where the naval presence of India and China will be expanding alongside America’s own.”

Mr. Kaplan concludes Chapter 1 by concluding that the Indian Ocean “is once again at the heart of the world, just as it was in antique and medieval times.”

We hope this review and others that follow will persuade serious readers to get this book and keep it in their library for frequent reading. We think it is that good and relevant.

* This is consistent with our argument that President George W. Bush transformed American Foreign Policy & its global frame of reference away from Europe towards the Emerging Centers of Power. We discussed this argument in our November 2008 article The One Critical Difference Between Bush and Obama .

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