Center Stage for the 21st Century: Rivalry in the Indian Ocean By Robert Kaplan For better or worse, phrases such "the Cold War" and "the clash of civilizations" matter. In a similar way, so do maps. The right map can stimulate foresight by providing a spatial view of critical trends in world politics. Understanding the map of Europe was essential to understanding the twentieth century. Although recent technological advances and economic integration have encouraged global thinking, some places continue to count more than others. And in some of those, such as Iraq and Pakistan, two countries with inherently artificial contours, politics is still at the mercy of geography. So in what quarter of the earth today can one best glimpse the future? Because of their own geographic circumstances, Americans, in particular, continue to concentrate on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. World War II and the Cold War shaped this outlook: Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, and communist China were all oriented toward one of these two oceans. The bias is even embedded in mapping conventions: Mercator projections tend to place the Western Hemisphere in the middle of the map, splitting the Indian Ocean at its far edges. And yet, as the pirate activity off the coast of Somalia and the terrorist carnage in Mumbai last fall suggest, the Indian Ocean -- the world's third-largest body of water -- already forms center stage for the challenges of the twenty-first century. 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 clichï¿½ 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. SEA CHANGES Thanks to the predictability of the monsoon winds, the countries on the Indian Ocean were connected well before the age of steam power. Trade in frankincense, spices, precious stones, and textiles brought together the peoples flung along its long shoreline during the Middle Ages. Throughout history, sea routes have mattered more than land routes, writes the historian Felipe Fernï¿½ndez-Armesto, because they carry more goods more economically. "Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice," went one saying during the late fifteenth century, alluding to the city's extensive commerce with Asia; if the world were an egg, Hormuz would be its yolk, went another. Even today, in the jet and information age, 90 percent of global commerce and about 65 percent of all oil travel by sea. Globalization has been made possible by the cheap and easy shipping of containers on tankers, and the Indian Ocean accounts for fully half the world's container traffic. Moreover, 70 percent of the total traffic of petroleum products passes through the Indian Ocean, on its way from the Middle East to the Pacific. As these goods travel that route, they pass through the world's principal oil shipping lanes, including the Gulfs of Aden and Oman -- as well as some of world commerce's main chokepoints: Bab el Mandeb and the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Forty percent of world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca; 40 percent of all traded crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Already the world's preeminent energy and trade interstate seaway, the Indian Ocean will matter even more in the future. Global energy needs are expected to rise by 45 percent between 2006 and 2030, and almost half of the growth in demand will come from India and China. China's demand for crude oil doubled between 1995 and 2005 and will double again in the coming 15 years or so; by 2020, China is expected to import 7.3 million barrels of crude per day -- half of Saudi Arabia's planned output. More than 85 percent of the oil and oil products bound for China cross the Indian Ocean and pass through the Strait of Malacca. India -- soon to become the world's fourth-largest energy consumer, after the United States, China, and Japan -- is dependent on oil for roughly 33 percent of its energy needs, 65 percent of which it imports. And 90 percent of its oil imports could soon come from the Persian Gulf. India must satisfy a population that will, by 2030, be the largest of any country in the world. Its coal imports from far-off Mozambique are set to increase substantially, adding to the coal that India already imports from other Indian Ocean countries, such as South Africa, Indonesia, and Australia. In the future, India-bound ships will also be carrying increasingly large quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG) across the seas from southern Africa, even as it continues importing LNG from Qatar, Malaysia, and Indonesia. As the whole Indian Ocean seaboard, including Africa's eastern shores, becomes a vast web of energy trade, India is seeking to increase its influence from the Plateau of Iran to the Gulf of Thailand -- an expansion west and east meant to span the zone of influence of the Raj's viceroys. India's trade with the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and Iran, with which India has long enjoyed close economic and cultural ties, is booming. Approximately 3.5 million Indians work in the six Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council and send home $4 billion in remittances annually. As India's economy continues to grow, so will its trade with Iran and, once the country recovers, Iraq. Iran, like Afghanistan, has become a strategic rear base for India against Pakistan, and it is poised to become an important energy partner. In 2005, India and Iran signed a multibillion-dollar deal under which Iran will supply India with 7.5 million tons of LNG annually for 25 years, beginning in 2009. There has been talk of building a gas pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan, a project that would join the Middle East and South Asia at the hip (and in the process could go a long way toward stabilizing Indian-Pakistani relations). In another sign that Indian-Iranian relations are growing more intimate, India has been helping Iran develop the port of Chah Bahar, on the Gulf of Oman, which will also serve as a forward base for the Iranian navy. India has also been expanding its military and economic ties with Myanmar, to the east. Democratic India does not have the luxury of spurning Myanmar's junta because Myanmar is rich in natural resources -- oil, natural gas, coal, zinc, copper, uranium, timber, and hydropower -- resources in which the Chinese are also heavily invested. India hopes that a network of east-west roads and energy pipelines will eventually allow it to be connected to Iran, Pakistan, and Myanmar. India is enlarging its navy in the same spirit. With its 155 warships, the Indian navy is already one of the world's largest, and it expects to add three nuclear-powered submarines and three aircraft carriers to its arsenal by 2015. One major impetus for the buildup was the humiliating inability of its navy to evacuate Indian citizens from Iraq and Kuwait during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Another is what Mohan Malik, a scholar at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Hawaii, has called India's "Hormuz dilemma," its dependence on imports passing through the strait, close to the shores of Pakistan's Makran coast, where the Chinese are helping the Pakistanis develop deep-water ports. Indeed, as India extends its influence east and west, on land and at sea, it is bumping into China, which, also concerned about protecting its interests throughout the region, is expanding its reach southward. Chinese President Hu Jintao has bemoaned China's "Malacca dilemma." The Chinese government hopes to eventually be able to partly bypass that strait by transporting oil and other energy products via roads and pipelines from ports on the Indian Ocean into the heart of China. One reason that Beijing wants desperately to integrate Taiwan into its dominion is so that it can redirect its naval energies away from the Taiwan Strait and toward the Indian Ocean. The Chinese government has already adopted a "string of pearls" strategy for the Indian Ocean, which consists of setting up a series of ports in friendly countries along the ocean's northern seaboard. It is building a large naval base and listening post in Gwadar, Pakistan, (from which it may already be monitoring ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz); a port in Pasni, Pakistan, 75 miles east of Gwadar, which is to be joined to the Gwadar facility by a new highway; a fueling station on the southern coast of Sri Lanka; and a container facility with extensive naval and commercial access in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Beijing operates surveillance facilities on islands deep in the Bay of Bengal. In Myanmar, whose junta gets billions of dollars in military assistance from Beijing, the Chinese are constructing (or upgrading) commercial and naval bases and building roads, waterways, and pipelines in order to link the Bay of Bengal to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. Some of these facilities are closer to cities in central and western China than those cities are to Beijing and Shanghai, and so building road and rail links from these facilities into China will help spur the economies of China's landlocked provinces. The Chinese government is also envisioning a canal across the Isthmus of Kra, in Thailand, to link the Indian Ocean to China's Pacific coast -- a project on the scale of the Panama Canal and one that could further tip Asia's balance of power in China's favor by giving China's burgeoning navy and commercial maritime fleet easy access to a vast oceanic continuum stretching all the way from East Africa to Japan and the Korean Peninsula. All of these activities are unnerving the Indian government. With China building deep-water ports to its west and east and a preponderance of Chinese arms sales going to Indian Ocean states, India fears being encircled by China unless it expands its own sphere of influence. The two countries' overlapping commercial and political interests are fostering competition, and even more so in the naval realm than on land. Zhao Nanqi, former director of the General Logistics Department of the People's Liberation Army, proclaimed in 1993, "We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as an ocean only of the Indians." India has responded to China's building of a naval base in Gwadar by further developing one of its own, that in Karwar, India, south of Goa. Meanwhile, Zhang Ming, a Chinese naval analyst, has warned that the 244 islands that form India's Andaman and Nicobar archipelago could be used like a "metal chain" to block the western entrance to the Strait of Malacca, on which China so desperately depends. "India is perhaps China's most realistic strategic adversary," Zhang has written. "Once India commands the Indian Ocean, it will not be satisfied with its position and will continuously seek to extend its influence, and its eastward strategy will have a particular impact on China." These may sound like the words of a professional worrier from China's own theory class, but these worries are revealing: Beijing already considers New Delhi to be a major sea power. As the competition between India and China suggests, the Indian Ocean is where global struggles will play out in the twenty-first century. The old borders of the Cold War map are crumbling fast, and Asia is becoming a more integrated unit, from the Middle East to the Pacific. South Asia has been an indivisible part of the greater Islamic Middle East since the Middle Ages: it was the Muslim Ghaznavids of eastern Afghanistan who launched raids on India's northwestern coast in the early eleventh century; Indian civilization itself is a fusion of the indigenous Hindu culture and the cultural imprint left by these invasions. Although it took the seaborne terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November for most Westerners to locate India inside the greater Middle East, the Indian Ocean's entire coast has always constituted one vast interconnected expanse. What is different now is the extent of these connections. On a maritime-centric map of southern Eurasia, artificial land divisions disappear; even landlocked Central Asia is related to the Indian Ocean. Natural gas from Turkmenistan may one day flow through Afghanistan, for example, en route to Pakistani and Indian cities and ports, one of several possible energy links between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Both the Chinese port in Gwadar, Pakistan, and the Indian port in Chah Bahar, Iran, may eventually be connected to oil- and natural-gas-rich Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and other former Soviet republics. S. Frederick Starr, a Central Asia expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said at a conference in Washington last year that access to the Indian Ocean "will help define Central Asian politics in the future." Others have called ports in India and Pakistan "evacuation points" for Caspian Sea oil. The destinies of countries even 1,200 miles from the Indian Ocean are connected with it. ELEGANT DECLINE The United States faces three related geopolitical challenges in Asia: the strategic nightmare of the greater Middle East, the struggle for influence over the southern tier of the former Soviet Union, and the growing presence of India and China in the Indian Ocean. The last seems to be the most benign of the three. China is not an enemy of the United States, like Iran, but a legitimate peer competitor, and India is a budding ally. And the rise of the Indian navy, soon to be the third largest in the world after those of the United States and China, will function as an antidote to Chinese military expansion. The task of the U.S. Navy will therefore be to quietly leverage the sea power of its closest allies -- India in the Indian Ocean and Japan in the western Pacific -- to set limits on China's expansion. But it will have to do so at the same time as it seizes every opportunity to incorporate China's navy into international alliances; a U.S.-Chinese understanding at sea is crucial for the stabilization of world politics in the twenty-first century. After all, the Indian Ocean is a seaway for both energy and hashish and is in drastic need of policing. To manage it effectively, U.S. military planners will have to invoke challenges such as terrorism, piracy, and smuggling to bring together India, China, and other states in joint sea patrols. The goal of the United States must be to forge a global maritime system that can minimize the risks of interstate conflict while lessening the burden of policing for the U.S. Navy.