Robert D. Kaplan on the New Geopolitics

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In a wide-ranging essay for Foreign Affairs, Atlantic national correspondent Robert D. Kaplan argues that the Indian Ocean rim will take "center stage for the 21st century" as a site of commercial and military rivalries.

After painting a vivid picture of the geopolitical faultlines in the region, particularly the emerging struggle between India and China for the control of critical sea-lanes, Kaplan turns to the question of how the United States might manage the transition from a regional peace based primarily on American naval strength to a more cooperative, and perhaps more sustainable, strategic arrangement.

One might envision a "NATO of the seas" for the Indian Ocean, composed of South Africa, Oman, Pakistan, India, Singapore, and Australia, with Pakistan and India bickering inside the alliance much as Greece and Turkey have inside NATO. But that idea fails to capture what the Indian Ocean is all about. Owing to the peripatetic movements of medieval Arab and Persian sailors and the legacies of Portuguese, Dutch, and British imperialists, the Indian Ocean forms a historical and cultural unit. Yet in strategic terms, it, like the world at large today, has no single focal point. The Gulf of Aden, the Persian Gulf, the Bay of Bengal -- all these areas are burdened by different threats with different players. Just as today NATO is a looser alliance, less singularly focused than it was during the Cold War, any coalition centered on the Indian Ocean should be adapted to the times. Given the ocean's size -- it stretches across seven time zones and almost half of the world's latitudes -- and the comparative slowness at which ships move, it would be a challenge for any one multinational navy to get to a crisis zone in time. The United States was able to lead the relief effort off the coast of Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami only because the carrier strike group the USS Abraham Lincoln happened to be in the vicinity and not in the Korean Peninsula, where it was headed.

A better approach would be to rely on multiple regional and ideological alliances in different parts of the Indian Ocean. Some such efforts have already begun. The navies of Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia have banded together to deter piracy in the Strait of Malacca; those of the United States, India, Singapore, and Australia have exercised together off India's southwestern coast -- an implicit rebuke to China's designs in the region. According to Vice Admiral John Morgan, former deputy chief of U.S. naval operations, the Indian Ocean strategic system should be like the New York City taxi system: driven by market forces and with no central dispatcher. Coalitions will naturally form in areas where shipping lanes need to be protected, much as taxis gather in the theater district before and after performances. For one Australian commodore, the model should be a network of artificial sea bases supplied by the U.S. Navy, which would allow for different permutations of alliances: frigates and destroyers from various states could "plug and play" into these sea bases as necessary and spread out from East Africa to the Indonesian archipelago.

In light of how difficult it is to get a cab in some of the remoter stretches of New York City, this notion of a "taxi strategy" is not entirely encouraging. This network approach will represent a departure from post-war grand strategy. Yet it will be in keeping with an older American tradition of eschewing permanent entanglements.

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Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at Economics 21, a columnist for The Daily, and a blogger for National Review Online.

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