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Robert Kaplan: Indian Ocean becomes battleground for India and China

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(Read caption) Helicopters fly past the Chinese Jiangwei II class naval frigate "Luoyang" at an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy in Qingdao, Shandong province in this 2009 file photo. India is concerned about China's potential aggressiveness in the area of the Indian Ocean.

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Let's play connect the dots. After the US midterm elections, President Obama will visit India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan. Trace a line between the nations, noting how it loops down through the Indian Ocean and back up through the South China Sea and East China Sea, forming a semicircle around China.

The route underscores the importance of these nations and bodies of water as the United States seeks to check the growing assertiveness of China, says Robert Kaplan, author of newly published “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.”

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“It's not a war I'm predicting, but what I am alluding toward is a very complex, Metternichian arrangement of power from the Horn of Africa all the way up through the Sea of Japan,” Mr. Kaplan told a small crowd Monday at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. "We don't have to interfere everywhere, we just have to move closer to our democratic allies in the region so they can do more of the heavy lifting."

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China's ongoing dispute in the East China Sea over islands claimed by Japan is the most recent example of Beijing's growing assertiveness on water. South Korea and Indonesia – the other stopovers for Mr. Obama next month – are also wary of China's wide-reaching maritime claims. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for her part, seems to be filling in the gap between these countries with her upcoming visits to Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand.

Rise of India and China

A correspondent for the Atlantic and member of the Defense Policy Board federal advisory committee, Kaplan says he is convinced that the West should focus on the role that emerging superpowers China and India will play as they battle for dominance in the Indian Ocean, an area rich in resources and vital to shipping.

“In this post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world ... we're seeing the rise of India and China,” he says. “Think of China trying to move south toward the Indian Ocean and India moving west and east. Where they intersect will be lines of rivalry through the 21st century.”

China now has fighter jets stationed in Tibet that can reach Indian airspace. The Indian Navy now has a presence in the South China Sea. And in the Indian Ocean, both powers are racing to establish their presence.

China is building major port projects in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), and Sri Lanka, while also providing significant military and economic aid to those countries. Chinese warships paid their first visit in August to Burma, the Monitor's Ben Arnoldy recently reported, warning that the Indian Ocean could become a more serious flashpoint for India and China's overlapping ambitions.

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“China wants a presence. India is unnerved by all of this,” says Kaplan.

China takes to the seas

The United States, too, will need to play this game of “soft power” in the region. “We've gotten used to this Burger King, cold war-style base,” Kaplan told a smiling audience. Into the future, the US military is likely to offer aid for nations to maintain military bases in exchange for access. “In other words, more of a subtle relationship.”

Like the United States, which beefed up its navy and increased its maritime activities after consolidating its land borders, so too is China expanding on the oceans now that it has nearly completed drawing its land border from Tibet to Taiwan.

“China is able to build a great navy precisely because its land borders are secure,” says Kaplan. By contrast, he says India is still attempting to control its borders with Pakistan (at Kashmir), Nepal, and Bangladesh, which sucks resources away from its navy.

No longer America's playground

This highlights how India is still far behind China. China paves more miles of road per year than India already has. Its economy and military are both much larger than India's. Even the recent Commonwealth Games in Delhi, fraught with delays and troubles, served to highlight China's display of might in pulling off the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Regardless of when or if India catches up to China, this much is now clear for the Washington, says Kaplan: “The Indian Ocean and Pacific are no longer American lakes.”