Book Review – Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Powe

Yesterday was World Ocean’s Day and a perfect day to read this book by Robert Kaplan. Kaplan is  a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. Ideally one should have read a book on importance of oceans in human lives but even to know the role oceans play in geo-politics is quite interesting and important as well.

I am sure there are better books on history of Indian ocean and South Asia. But this one is a great way to be introduced to such an important and fascinating subject.  As economics textbooks have taken out politics, history and geography (even economics) from them, one is just amazed to read all such accounts.

The main thesis of the book is that geography matters in determining destinies of countries. This is against the institutional view which says only good institutions matter. But having favorable geography does determine the state of nations over a long term. Having access to sea routes and good ports, is a huge natural advantage on which one can build on.

The author picks why Indian ocean and countries around the ocean will play a key role in coming years/decades. He says just like Atlantic Ocean played a crucial role since the World Wars, same will be the case with Indian Ocean. US was the key player in importance of Atlantic Ocean and China (along with others) is likely to play a key role in Indian Ocean. This is also nothing new really. Indian Ocean played a dominating role earlier as well when European colonisers navigated through the ocean to make most of Asia their colonies. Even before them, when India and China ruled the world Indian Ocean played a key role as well (though Silk Route or land route played the dominant role then).

So, the author builds this superb narrative around the key countries which are going to play a key role (China, India, Oman, Indonesia etc) and those who could be spoilsports (like Pakistan. Bangladesh, Burma etc.) Unlike an academic book which could be boring or a journo account which could be too light, this one mixes both really well. In a highly lucid manner , Kaplan also narrates his travel experiences in each of these places along with history and academic stuff. Really fascinating stuff.

The essays on countries like Oman are particularly interesting as so little is known about them. Given its crucial location in world trade, Oman has always played an important role in Indian ocean trade activities.

The book helps you understand many a things which China is trying to do now as it tries to become an option to US in world politics. There are lessons for US as well which has turned more imperialist in its ambitions. This has led many countries to ally with China and deserting US. It tells you clearly why China is pushing development banks and restarting the silk route.

India in the middle has always tried to do a balancing act. Earlier it was about trying to mitigate US power and now it is about dealing with China. But as the attention shifts to Indian Ocean, India is expected to play a more crucial and leadership role this time around.

This is how one must ideally study economics.  Mixing all these geo political forces and then using an economist’s lens to understand the issues. But we are just lost into doing meaningless math and abstract modelling. An inquiry into wealth of nations is really about understanding these developments. Nothing more, nothing less.

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