Monsoon – Robert D. Kaplan

Here’s another book review, this time on the macro-economic topic of developments in the Indian Ocean area. Yes we do start with some historical information, but we will bring the article to the here and now quickly.

The Indian Ocean? That’s two oceans, right?

Over the past centuries, the Indian Ocean has been an overlooked part of the world, economic-wise. Just have a look at the map of the world from the perspective of the United States; Asia is divided in two and barely gets a spot at the two far most edges of our globe.

The Atlantic being the center stage of the world economy is, as Kaplan calls it, an ‘anomaly’. In his book Monsoon, traveller, writer and global strategist Robert D. Kaplan sketches an image of the world where it is not the Atlantic, but the Indian Ocean that will play the most significant role in the future of our world.

This raises two questions: What will this economic shift mean to the ruling power of the US? And where did the development of South Asia suddenly come from? Well, to start with the second question; The Indian Ocean area has always been an economy at it’s own right.

Trading history

The Indian Ocean has attracted European people for ages, but it was not until in the Sixteenth Century that the great explorer Vasco da Gama was able to round Cape the Good Hope.

After he landed in Mozambique, he found at that the ‘treasures’ he brought to the local leaders, were not as valuable as he thought. Not a lot of doors opened when Da Gama offered a red hat, some bracelets and shiny things.

At that time, locals had been trading in the Indian Ocean, with countries as far as Indonesia, for a long time by then. Providing them with access to spices, cloth and fine jewellery from the whole area, including the Middle East, India and South-East Asia.

Da Gama was only able to take hostage a navigator to bring him further north along the East-African coast, before setting sail to India.

The Wikipedia article on Vasco da Gama publishes the following; ‘After decades of sailors trying to reach India with thousands of lives and dozens of vessels lost in shipwrecks and attacks, Gama landed in Calicut on 20 May 1498. Reaching the legendary Indian spice routes unopposed helped the Portuguese Empire improve its economy that, until Gama, was mainly based on trades along the Northern and coastal West Africa. These spices were mostly pepper and cinnamon at first, but soon included other products, all new to Europe which led to a commercial monopoly for several decades.’


East-Africans, Arabs and Asians were able to navigate the vast distance of the Indian Ocean because of the steady and predictable winds of the Indian Ocean. One part of the year the winds blow steadily eastward, changing direction later in the year. Because of this strong tailwind, traders were able to cross the whole ocean in a couple of weeks. Compared to covering distances over-land, this was a totally acceptable travelling time, providing a feel of neighbourship between countries like Oman, India and Indonesia.

So, the local people spread out throughout the region, and it surely wasn’t that the indigenous people were just savages, au contraire!


A country with a major impact on Indian Ocean trade has long been Oman. Still, Omani people are to be found throughout the whole region, with quite a big population of Omanis living in East-African Zanzibar (which translates into ‘Coast of the Blacks’ in Persian).

Oman is situated strategically at the tip of the Arabia, just above Dubai, at the Strait of Hormuz. When you realise that The Strait of Hormuz transits about 20% of the world trade in petroleum, you instantly understand the strategical importance. Would the transit of petroleum be compromised, e.g. because of tensions between Iran and the U.S., petroleum shortage throughout the world looms.

Gwadar, Pakistan

On the south-coast of Pakistan lies Gwadar, a planned port-city. What makes this city so remarkable is the master plan for this town. In 2003 it was decided that Gwadar would become a major port in Pakistan. With a population of 85,000 right now, it is expected that the number of residents will rise to over 500,000 in under 5 years time.

As described on Wikipedia ‘In 2013, Gwadar Port operations were officially handed over to China. According to the contract signed a full-fledged commercial port will be constructed with initial investment of $750 million. The port is said to be strategically important for China as sixty percent of China’s oil comes from the Gulf by ships traveling over 16,000 kilometers in two to three months, confronting pirates, bad weather, political rivals and other risks up to its only commercial port, Shanghai. Gwadar will reduce the distance to a mere 2,500 kilometers and also serve round the year’.

Although it will be the Singapore Port Authority who runs operations in the commercial port,  because of the strategical position and huge benefits, it is China who has the soft lead in Gwadar.

Gujarat, India

India has a strong position in the Indian Ocean, relatively stable and bordered by oceans on three sides. So unlike China, from it’s own territory, India is able to be present in the entire region.

But, in India too, life isn’t perfect, as we’ve come to learn from the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Starting with the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, it ended with bloody violence between Muslims and Hindus, resulting in hundres being killed and thousands injured.

Gurajat is one of the best-developed provinces of India. To prepare itself for the future, and with examples from Dubai and South-Korea in mind, the province has started with drawing a planned city (yes, just like Gwadar): Gujarat International Finance Tec City, or GIFT. How big will this city be in 5 or 10 years from now…?!


Although China doesn’t actually have a border at any part of the Indian ocean, the Chinese have acknowledged the importance of the area. China pays huge sums of money to import oil from the Middle East, and also is aware of the economic rise in this area.

So China invests a lot of money in development, of cities, ports, economies and safety. Up until now it has always been the United States who ruled the waters of the Indian Ocean, but China has quite an armada in the waters these days as well.

According to Monsoon and various other sources China is investigating the development of Naval bases around Gwadar or in Sri Lanka / the Maldives.

The US in relation to India and China

For the US, it is important to take sides between India and China. Both are (becoming) super powers in their own right. And although China’s GDP is still 4 times that of India, the Chinese, and the US alike, are aware of developments in the Indian subcontinent.

The US play a strategic triangular political game between the three of them. Will this pay out for them, or will the US be outplayed by an Asian pact between India and China?

About the author

Over the past few years Walter van der Scheer has been evangelizing marketing automation to advertising agencies, e-commerce companies and co-workers alike and has been building a team of determined sales professionals. He has made progress, but the road ahead is still very long. Walter shares his personal experiences and challenges along the road of changing the way that marketing is done, while trying to stick to the strategically chosen path. +

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