For better or worse, phrases such "the Cold War" and "the clash of civilizations" matter. In a similar way, so do maps.
The right map can stimulate foresight by providing a spatial view of critical trends in world politics. Because of their own geographic circumstances, Americans, in particular, continue to concentrate on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The bias is even embedded in mapping conventions: Mercator projections tend to place the Western Hemisphere in the middle of the map, splitting the Indian Ocean at its far edges.
And yet, as the pirate activity off the coast of Somalia and the terrorist carnage in Mumbai last fall suggest, the Indian Ocean — the world's third-largest body of water — already forms center stage for the challenges of the 21st century. The dramatic economic growth of India and China has been duly noted, but the equally dramatic military ramifications of this development have not.
India's and China's great-power aspirations, as well as their quests for energy security, have compelled the two countries to focus on their sea power. And so a map of the Indian Ocean exposes the contours of power politics in the 21st century.
Even today, in the jet and information age, 90 percent of global commerce and about 65 percent of all oil travel by sea. Globalization has been made possible by the cheap and easy shipping of containers on tankers, and the Indian Ocean accounts for fully half the world's container traffic. Moreover, 70 percent of the total traffic of petroleum products passes through the Indian Ocean, on its way from the Middle East to the Pacific. Global energy needs are expected to rise by 45 percent between 2006 and 2030, and almost half of the growth in demand will come from India and China.
As the whole Indian Ocean seaboard, including Africa's eastern shores, becomes a vast web of energy trade, India is seeking to increase its influence from the Plateau of Iran to the Gulf of Thailand. And, as India extends its influence east and west, on land and at sea, it is bumping into China, which, also concerned about protecting its interests throughout the region, is expanding its reach southward.
As this competition between India and China suggests, the Indian Ocean is where global struggles will play out in the 21st century. The old borders of the Cold War map are crumbling fast, and Asia is becoming a more integrated unit, from the Middle East to the Pacific.
Yet as the challenges for the United States on the high seas multiply, it is unclear how much longer U.S. naval dominance will last. By sometime in the next decade, China's navy will have more warships than the United States. However, China is not an enemy of the United States, like Iran, but a legitimate peer competitor, and India is a budding ally. And the rise of the Indian navy, soon to be the third largest in the world after those of the United States and China, will function as an antidote to Chinese military expansion.
The task of the U.S. Navy will therefore be to quietly leverage the sea power of its closest allies — India in the Indian Ocean and Japan in the western Pacific — to set limits on China's expansion. But it will have to do so at the same time as it seizes every opportunity to incorporate China's navy into international alliances; a U.S.-Chinese understanding at sea is crucial for the stabilization of world politics in the 21st century.
So how exactly does the United States play the role of a constructive, distant, and slowly declining hegemon and keep peace on the high seas? One might envision a "NATO of the seas" for the Indian Ocean, composed of South Africa, Oman, Pakistan, India, Singapore and Australia, with Pakistan and India bickering inside the alliance much as Greece and Turkey have inside NATO.
But that idea fails to capture what the Indian Ocean is all about. The Indian Ocean forms a historical and cultural unit, yet in strategic terms, it, like the world at large today, has no single focal point. The Gulf of Aden, the Persian Gulf, the Bay of Bengal — all these areas are burdened by different threats with different players. A better approach would be to rely on multiple regional and ideological alliances in different parts of the Indian Ocean.
Like a microcosm of the world at large, the greater Indian Ocean region is developing into an area of both ferociously guarded sovereignty and astonishing interdependence. And for the first time since the Portuguese onslaught in the region in the early 16th century, the West's power there is in decline, however subtly and relatively. The Indians and the Chinese will enter into a dynamic great-power rivalry in these waters, with their shared economic interests as major trading partners locking them in an uncomfortable embrace. The United States, meanwhile, will serve as a stabilizing power in this newly complex area. Indispensability, rather than dominance, must be its goal.
Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for the Atlantic and a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in Washington, D.C., is writing a book on the Indian Ocean. He recently was the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy.