By Jerry Levine
Today’s Machining World Archives May 2011 Volume 07 Issue 04
Monsoon by Robert Kaplan is a superb book about India, another Third World country (not China) that is flying into the 21st century. Kaplan believes that during this century the world’s balance of power will move from the North Atlantic into the Indian Ocean. India, China and the United States will come into direct competition over raw materials, markets, and political and military influence.
For the past several years a global chess game has been quietly unfolding across the Indian Ocean—stretching from Africa and the Persian Gulf through the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and out into the South China Sea. China, India and the United States have been the main players, but Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia have also been active.
The main driver has been China’s attempt to line up raw materials, mainly oil, but also minerals from Africa and the Middle East, and then ensure their safe passage to China. About 85 percent of China-bound oil must pass three major pinch points, the Strait of Hormuz at the exit of the Persian Gulf, Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, and the Strait of Malacca, which enters the South China Sea. These strategic locations are controlled respectively by Iran, India and Indonesia—three coun-tries who have not had long-term cordial relations with China. Recently, China has had territorial conflicts with its South China Sea neighbors, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, ostensibly over fishing rights around various small islands. China’s real objective, however, is to guarantee unobstructed shipping lanes for oil and other goods.
In the Indian Ocean, China is investing billions along their supply line to build a “string of pearls” series of ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The ports are designed to handle both commercial and military traffic. China is also looking at overland pipeline routes to its interior from Central Asia and Myanmar, as well as a pipeline from Iran to their new port in Gwadar, Pakistan. India is countering by building additional military ports on both its west and east coasts. In the meantime, the U.S. 7th Fleet is still exercising its dominance in those same sea lanes. The 7th Fleet is still far larger than the combined navies of India and China, but both countries have significantly increased their military spending in the past few years in an attempt to project more power in their own back yards.
The rise of India’s and China’s economies and the countries’ demand for oil has been an accelerant for the Arab world’s economies. For the Arabs, China could be an alternative strategic partner to the West. The way the U.S. manages the “Arab Spring” revolutions will define its relationship with the Arab world, which may then affect the inroads China achieves in that region.
Likewise, Africa is also becoming a beneficiary of India’s and China’s economic growth. China today gets 35 percent of its oil from Africa and India gets 20 percent of its oil from Africa. Chinese goods are flowing in the opposite direction. Access to arable land is another area of competition between the two countries. While both India and China are self-sufficient in food production, the two compete for additional land in various African countries to plant exotic crops like palm oil for biofuels.
It is possible that India’s and China’s mutual dependence on the same sea lanes could one day lead to an alliance that could turn hostile to the Unites States. But currently, the three countries have been united in humanitarian efforts, such as providing aid to the victims of the 2004-5 Indian Ocean tsunami. Pirate attacks, an ever-increasing problem in both the Arabian and the South China Seas, will also provide opportunities for cooperation among the three powers.
Robert Kaplan entitled the book “Monsoon” because monsoons are destructive yet also essential for growth and prosperity. The Indian Ocean countries are growing rapidly and represent a shift in the global balance of power. American foreign policy needs to allow room for this growth and then participate in the region’s increased prosperity.