Looking to the Indian Ocean

My view of the world has centered upon the West — Europe joined to North America by the Atlantic Ocean. World War II and the importance of Japan and China brought the Pacific Ocean more into the American consciousness. Make room now for the Indian Ocean.

Robert D. Kaplan, in his book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, opens our eyes to a part of the world that has long been important in world affairs but rather unfamiliar to many in North America. Kaplan writes the following:

“The map of Europe defined the twentieth century. … “It is my contention that the Greater Indian Ocean … may comprise a map as iconic to the new century as Europe was to the last one.” (p.xi)

“Recently, messy land wars have obscured for us the importance of seas and coastlines, across which most trade is conducted and along which most of humanity lives, and where, consequently, future military and economic activity is likely to take place as in the past.” (p.xii)

The key word in those quotes is “trade.” The Indian Ocean is the scene of a massive exchange of goods between nations and civilizations. The ocean that stretches from East Africa to the islands of Southeast Asia has a long history of trade, then five hundred years ago the West came in the guise of Portuguese, Dutch, French and English traders and navies.

“[Vasco] Da Gama’s arrival in India initiated the rise of the West in Asia. … [I]t is possible that the five-hundred-year chapter of Western preponderance is slowly beginning to close.” (p.xii)

While trade is what ties the region together, religion plays a big part, as well. But while Islam is the dominant faith, it shares space with Hinduism and Buddhism, and the Islam of Southeast Asia is different from that in the Middle East.

“The Indian Ocean region is more than just a stimulating geography. It is an idea because it provides an insightful visual impression of Islam, and combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the importance of world navies, in order to show us a multi-layered, multi-polar world above and beyond the headlines. …” (p.xiii)

There is a familiar expression associated with the pioneering times in American history–“Go west, young man.” Now, we probably should say, “Look east, young men and women.”

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