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Q&A With Robert Kaplan on Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean

Trade and Security on the High Seas

Robert D. Kaplan

  • Country: The United States
  • Title: Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security
  • Education: University of Connecticut

Evan Walczak: What impact will the global financial downturn have on Indian Ocean relations?

A: The global financial meltdown will slow down the process that I write about in the article. Projects such as pipelines from Indian Ocean ports and canals or land bridges connecting the Bay of Bengal with the South China Sea require investment capital. And there will be less of that going around. Also, the deleterious effect of the crisis on the Pakistani and other economies will increase instability, making pipeline security even more problematic than it already is. It is important to note that I am writing in the article about long-term megatrends that I expect to play out over the course of decades, not years.

 

Chandrasekar Sellamuthu: How will the growing dominance of China impact India, and how should India respond without affecting its bilateral relationship with China? What policies should India follow in order to develop economic cooperation along the Indian Ocean rim?

A: The growing dominance of China will lead the citizens of India -- particularly its ruling economic classes -- to become increasingly frustrated with the inefficiencies of their own tumultuous democratic system. I am not talking here of a desire for authoritarianism but for more efficient and less corrupt governance. Competition with China could be the catalyst for the Indian government to perform better than it does. Precisely because there will be points of tension in the Indian-Chinese relationship, India must do all that it can to seek out points of agreement with China in order to stabilize relations. Merely seeking cooperative economic agreements with other countries along the rimland of the Indian Ocean will strengthen India's strategic position vis-à-vis China.

 

VM: As the economic balance of power shifts from the West to Asia, what role do you imagine India will play? How will the turbulence along the Central-South Asian corridor decrease or increase reliance on sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean?

A: India could emerge as the global pivot state supreme, tilting on some issues toward the United States and on others toward China. If you accept the notion that the most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century will be that between the United States and China, then India -- because of the size of its population and economy -- emerges as the weathervane of international politics. The more turbulent Central Asia and South Asia become politically, the less of a chance there is to develop those pipelines that so many talk about, thus slowing the emergence of the Indian Ocean as the premier strategic region.

 

John S.: With China planning to use the Myanmar port in the Bay of Bengal to import Middle Eastern oil and gas to the Yunnan province, what can India do? How will China be able to maintain its leverage with both Myanmar and Bangladesh -- both of which mobilized their armed forces to confront one another over maritime boundary issues -- without losing the goodwill of both?

A: China is the hub in a wheel of countries with which it maintains strong economic relations. Myanmar and Bangladesh may be at odds, but they both need China. All roads lead to Beijing. India has no choice but to engage Myanmar, a state on India's eastern frontier where the Chinese will be the overwhelming force if the Burmese generals are not engaged by India. India requires its own pipeline strategies to compete with China's. India's competition with China is a good in and of itself since it serves to put a brake on Chinese expansion, thus helping to stabilize the global system.

 

Rajesh Lucknauth: Your article is filled with strategic intelligence. Game theory seems to be playing out in the negotiations for energy security for the big countries. My question is as follows: How can smaller Indian Ocean states -- such as Mauritius -- play a key role in the economic strategy of those larger countries?

A: Mauritius, like other island nations in the southwestern Indian Ocean, can play and is playing China off India. These countries are, to a degree, in an advantageous position, able to leverage both rising Asian powers against each other. As Africa develops economically and stabilizes politically over the course of the twenty-first century, the formerly disaster-prone continent will play an increasingly vital role in Indian Ocean trading networks, making a place like Mauritius very strategic. I am an optimist on the greater Indian Ocean region, and the scenario I posit in my article constitutes, in a sense, the wages of success.

 

Greg R. Lawson: As China continues its naval buildup and the United States seeks to maintain a relatively hegemonic position as the guarantor of uninhibited sea and shipping lanes, what are the prospects of an incident such as the recent "harassment" of the USNS Impeccable spiraling out of control?

A: The rise of the Chinese navy and the relative -- let me repeat, relative -- long-term decline of the U.S. Navy will lead to occasional flare-ups of the kind we saw recently in the South China Sea. Though the bilateral American-Chinese relationship may in the main be peaceful and productive, a very subtle Cold War of the seas is not out of the question. The South China Sea is full of energy wealth that the Chinese wish to exploit. It is the Pacific gateway to the Indian Ocean. It frustrates the Chinese to no end that the U.S. Navy is present there to the degree that it is.

 

Otis Bedford: Do you think the U.S. ability to project power and sustain a forward military presence in this region will diminish in coming years? If so, what implications will that have for both U.S. policy and regional events?

A: I think there will be some modest diminishing of U.S. power and presence in the Indian Ocean as the years go on, owing to the economic crisis that has brought the United States into zero growth, even as the Chinese economy keeps growing. This will affect the pace of shipbuilding and acquisition in China's favor. We are not quite yet in a multipolar world, but we will be eventually, and the Indian Ocean will register the change. But even as the world system moves toward multipolarity, the United States, as I've indicated, will be in an indispensable position as the only great power with no territorial designs on Asia. This allows the United States to rise above realpolitik and act solely for the good of the region.

Gillian Roberts-Gibson: Your piece argues for a strong U.S. presence in the Indian Ocean. But what would the region look like without such a presence? From the strict perspective of U.S. national interest, does it really matter what happens in the Indian Ocean? In other words, if China and India collide, why should any American care?

A: Without a strong U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military presence in Asia and the Indian Ocean, the region would be far less stable and at the mercy of tensions between dynamically growing and highly nationalistic states. Here is the heartland of the world economy in the twenty-first century, which affects all of our standards of living, so we must care what happens here. For example, a war between North and South Korea or serious naval incidents between India and China could have a highly negative effect on world stock markets. Our presence is crucial to keeping this region at peace so that it can develop further, as I foresee, into a vital intersection point of energy transfers. Precisely because of the growth of populations and future pipeline networks, Asia will be an organic whole, which means that if conflict does break out, it can spread rapidly. In other words, as opportunities rise, so do dangers. The United States will be more important than ever in keeping the peace.

 

 

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