March 1, 2006  

Waters of wealth and war

The crucial Indian Ocean

Five hundred years ago, the Portuguese conquered the Indian Ocean with a dozen ships. In the 21st century, the U.S. Navy may find itself hard-pressed to maintain control of the same sea lanes with every vessel it can spare for that distant, difficult theater. If there is one region of the globe in which naval actions and broader U.S. involvement in crises approach a certainty, it’s the greater Indian Ocean, including contiguous waters from the Persian Gulf to the Java Sea and the deep littoral areas that harbor over a third of humanity, a fateful concentration of energy and mineral supplies, and a stupendous capacity for violence, local and international.

Riveted by the past century’s European wars — hot and cold — the United States, a maritime power, shifted its strategic thinking away from the seas and onto dry land. During a period of unprecedented expansion in global trade, with ever more wealth moving over the face of the waters, our military forgot the strategic importance of commerce — except for a few oil-related brushes near the Strait of Hormuz. Incidentally, the Portuguese held Hormuz for 100 years.

As you read these lines, nearly 20 million shipping containers are underway around the globe — carried by fewer than 4,000 hulls. The explosion of transoceanic trade simultaneously has made that commerce more vulnerable, not only in the obvious sense that economies have grown more interdependent, but also because, even as the volume of shipped goods increased, the number of significant cargo carriers plummeted — because of the increasing size of commercial vessels, from supertankers to container ships. Far fewer transports ply the seas today than a century ago; the sinking, seizure or blockading of a small portion of the international merchant fleet could bring high-end economies to a standstill. While our Navy — the most powerful and skilled in history — focuses on grand fleet actions (or their postmodern, dispersed equivalent), the strategic weak link across the globe is trade.

This is nowhere more evident than in the greater Indian Ocean (GIO), on whose shores lie great potential wealth and incomparable poverty, along with multiple immediate and potential clashes of civilizations, cultures and minorities. Here, the world’s great religions confront each other; systems of government challenge one another; social systems conflict; and the world’s two most powerful states, the United States and China, find themselves in a competition for resources and allies that Beijing, at least, views as a zero-sum game.

And no waters are so vulnerable.


Recently, a U.S. Navy ship entered the 21st century by stopping a hijacked vessel off the Somali coast and arresting the pirates aboard. From the Straits of Malacca to the Horn of Africa, piracy is back. Although hijackings and robberies at sea have become increasingly ambitious, most of their victims are still tramp steamers or coastal vessels. Proximity to a Somali dhow in Mombassa last summer convinced me that any pirates strong enough to withstand the smell of its cargo of dried shark probably deserved success. But we live in an age of new confluences: In Iraq, terrorists and insurgents collaborate with criminals. What happens if the growing Islamist-terrorist presence in the Horn of Africa discovers innovative ways to exploit pirates?

The direct damage terrorist-pirates could do would be limited. But their crimes would probably elicit an overreaction that would impede regional trade, while the second-order effects could be greater still: domino economic consequences, from lost business and customs revenue to insurance hikes that damaged fragile economies and multinational corporations alike. The worse scenario would be terrorist-sponsored pirates who engaged in sheer destruction. The worst would be terrorists-cum-pirates armed with weapons of mass destruction.

It may be a blessedly long time before a dhow carrying a nuke approaches a supertanker or an aircraft carrier, but at the high end of the threat spectrum, the potential for Iran to field nuclear weapons could alter the regional equation so profoundly that we would be hard-pressed to respond effectively within parameters acceptable to world opinion. Although recent nuclear saber-rattling by French President Jacque Chirac suggests that Europe may not have come so far from its old bad habits, after all. Will a future generation look back wistfully at the moderation of the George W. Bush presidency?

The prospect of nuclear weapons controlled by Tehran summons visions of a new, nuclear holocaust against Israel. But a Shi’a bomb is at least as likely to be employed against Sunni Muslims, while a nuclear threat to the Strait of Hormuz could play havoc with the global economy. Dubai may be the most vulnerable — and overpriced — patch of real estate on earth.

In his last State of the Union message, President Bush belatedly called for a dramatic reduction of U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil by 2025. Yet, even if this worthy goal is achieved — precipitating the well-deserved collapse of Arab oil economies — two turbulent decades loom ahead as the Muslim world argues with itself over the nature of its faith and the cause of its catastrophic failure. Iranian nuclear weapons, once married to effective delivery systems, would not only make it difficult for the U.S. military to operate in the Persian Gulf — could we sustain our efforts in Iraq if our ships feared to enter the Gulf? — but also would extend Tehran’s de facto control beyond its own oil reserves to those of the Gulf sheikhdoms and Saudi Arabia. And the position of the Islamo-fascist Tehran regime increasingly seems to be “Apres nous, le deluge.”

Yet, even this much attention paid to the Arabo-Persian world reflects only our past misjudgments, not the broader future. The Arab world, especially, is headed back to history’s ward for the terminally ill, with its decades of mismanaged oil wealth an anomaly whose long-term consequences were political, social, cultural and spiritual cancer. Especially if the Iraqi experiment fails, our challenge in the Middle East will no longer be to transform the region but to contain the consequences of its pervasive failure.


U.S. military and intelligence officers worry, with some justification, about Chinese involvement from Iran through southern Africa. But the Chinese — correctly — are far more worried about us.

Beijing has to play for time. For all the impressive growth statistics coming out of China, that state’s internal disparities, excited expectations, financial-system fragility and dependence on foreign trade to sustain its economy make Beijing nervous and geostrategically (not militarily) aggressive. Paradoxically, the Chinese government could endure a long war but lives on a knife’s edge in peace, surviving on bad domestic loans, an undervalued currency, low-end industries, the abuse of human capital, ecological ruthlessness and the crossed-fingers hope that the economy can transition to the production of more-sophisticated goods (in a glutted market) and the development of a service sector for which it is politically, linguistically and culturally ill-suited. While China is a power to be reckoned with, its greatest reckoning may be internal; meanwhile, if the robustness of any economy is exaggerated, it’s China’s.

To keep that economy running, China needs more of just about everything except people or corruption: More foreign markets, more domestic infrastructure, more raw materials, more minerals and, above all, ever more oil and gas. Beijing is well aware of its vulnerability to an interruption of trade and the interdiction of global sea lanes, and it also understands that its military — especially its navy — is far from becoming competitive with that of the United States. Thus, China’s alternative strategy is to build networks of interdependence, to conquer markets and build alliances wherever they have the potential to impede the diplomatic and military actions of the United States.

China’s initiatives abroad may be divided into those aimed at actively countering American power and those intended to frustrate American actions temporarily in a crisis. In addition to the practical benefits of pursuing natural gas supplies in Bolivia or leveraging a controlling interest in the Panama Canal, China hopes to distract U.S. attention and divert American energies and resources during a prelude to war or in its initial phase. Beijing realizes its presence in Latin America is no more than an outpost line that would have to be sacrificed. China’s fleet will never be able to contest the Pacific sea lanes. But Beijing will ensure that any wartime retreat from the Western Hemisphere leaves behind a maximum of regional ill-will toward Washington.

The GIO, on the other hand, is integral to Beijing’s strategy.

One of China’s advantages, at least in the near term, is its willingness to embrace the world’s worst rogue regimes; in the longer term, such as strategy can backfire as those regimes implode. The Chinese are active in Sudan and courting Iran, both because of the energy resources possessed by those states and their strategic locations. Elsewhere, Beijing has long since bought a degree of control over Myanmar. Even a decade ago, I found the old Burma Road crowded with goods-trucks making the trip between Rangoon/Yangon port and southern China. Beijing has a major intelligence operation and a quiet military presence in Myanmar, which it views as an emergency lifeline to the Bay of Bengal and the GIO beyond.

Not all of China’s engagement initiatives offer so direct a pay-off. In distant Zimbabwe, at the inland edge of the GIO, Beijing supports the vile regime of Robert Mugabe. In return, the Chinese have received concessionary terms for their investments, but that only goes so far in a bankrupt, ruined country. It isn’t so much a matter of profits, as of presence — and a reliable allied vote in world forums. To an unnoticed extent, the Chinese have begun to belie their reputation for cautiousness. By embracing one rogue regime after another, they’re gambling on a continued lack of unity among Western governments as well as on the stability of the world’s most repressive states — note their recent approaches to Saudi Arabia. Beijing is building its foreign policy on blasting caps in a world full of dynamite.

As formidable as some of this sounds, first-hand observation of the Chinese abroad suggests that we haven’t that much to worry about as far as direct competition goes. Much is made of deepening Chinese involvement in eastern Africa, the far and neglected shore of the GIO. And yes, the Chinese are visible: When I stayed in Dar es Salaam last year, my hotel — long deserted by Westerners — survived by providing bunks to Chinese delegations whose members displayed a manly disregard for the cockroaches in the dining room. Yet, not only is Chinese trade with Africa still miniscule compared to that with the U.S. or Europe, the geopolitical opportunities for China on that continent peaked in the 1960s, in the wake of the continent’s decolonization, in the age of Che in the Congo and Chinese engineers on Zanzibar, when revolutionary rhetoric still seemed a viable substitute for achievement. Beijing’s legacy in Tanzania, for example, is of ill-built factories that now stand derelict or function at a fraction of their theoretical capacity. Far from conquering 21st century Africa, Beijing blew its best shot decades ago. Now, China’s struggling to catch up with Western economies that not only have greater resources, skills and commercial ties, but whose representatives also are better liked.

We consistently fail to include the human factor in our intelligence analysis. While African states remain hungry for aid and investment, the Chinese are far less welcome than their money or goods. Although you can hardly move around the cities of the old Swahili Coast without tripping over groups of Chinese (never Chinese alone), those batches and bunches of ill-at-ease foreigners smack of the Soviet delegations of the high Cold War — although the Soviets drank harder. The Chinese hold a powerfully racist view of Africans, which Africans do not fail to grasp. The aloofness of the Chinese is one of their greatest weaknesses — even Chinese tourism in a country such as Kenya doesn’t help. The Chinese don’t tip, either.

On the other hand, Americans are far better liked than the herd-think global media would have one believe. In theory, Africans may not like the United States, but in practice they not only like but also admire America. There are no long lines of Africans waiting for visas to emigrate to China. Conversely, African governments may welcome the Chinese in theory, but no one much cares for them in the flesh.

This matters. At a time when we endure endless rhetoric about how we’re losing the culture wars because of Muslim-world truculence, the evidence I’ve seen first-hand, from Indonesia to South Africa, is that the American dream is alive and kicking far beyond our shores — if only we look beyond the Middle East. Chinese culture is exclusive and profoundly foreign (kung-fu movies notwithstanding), while American culture is so seductive it addicts even those who attack it. Apart from the failed civilization of Middle Eastern Islam, the future is ours to lose.

In eastern and southern Africa, as well as in the Middle East, the Chinese seek to create webs of obligation sufficiently strong to stymie U.S. diplomatic initiatives in a crisis and to deny the use of GIO port facilities to the U.S. Navy. The Chinese know they can’t win in the Pacific but believe they could put up a fight — if an asymmetrical one — in the Indian Ocean, with its indispensable sea lanes.

And the key to the Indian Ocean is India.


Watch Beijing’s attempts to build a relationship with New Delhi. If China’s leaders could prevent the United States from developing a closer relationship with any state on earth, they would unhesitatingly pick India.

It doesn’t take Mahan or Corbett to understand why. Just look at a map. There’s a very good reason why that body of water is called the “Indian” Ocean. China understands that, unless India can be persuaded to maintain a form of neutrality that tilts Beijing’s way during a Sino-American confrontation, China’s last hope of maintaining even the slightest economic lifeline would collapse; Beijing’s semi-satellite Myanmar would become worthless; and the region’s other states would be far less likely to align diplomatically with a China they perceived as bound to lose.

It often has been remarked that the U.S. and India are natural allies, given that they’re the world’s two largest democracies and have converging geostrategic and economic interests. Ties between our governments have been growing, if slowly. But for now, three obstacles remain on the Indian side that impede the expansion of cooperative efforts that would benefit both states profoundly: The psychological insecurity of the Indian elite, which manifests itself in roll-your-eyes arrogance; the populist demagogy of politicians still playing the outdated anti-American card; and, most challenging of all, Indian cartel and union resistance to the further opening of the Indian market, which would be of tremendous benefit to the overwhelming majority of the population and India’s still-disappointing economy.

Yet, our mutual interests are so strong that a closer alliance appears inevitable. There will be awkward intervals — over Pakistan, for example — but the smart money would bet on Beijing failing to make serious inroads with New Delhi. Beyond old antagonisms, India is deeply worried about the rapid expansion of Chinese wealth and power — and jealousy is a decisive strategic factor.

On a practical level, Indian alignment with the United States not only shifts a billion people to our side, but also effectively blocks China’s last trade routes; negates Chinese inroads in the Middle East and Africa; and eases the burden on the U.S. Navy by engaging India’s navy, a force with significant regional capabilities.

How India defines its geostrategic interests may decide the fate of the entire region.


A magazine column can barely scratch the surface of the incomparably complex GIO theater. Our difficulties in comprehending the strategic interdependence of Australia and South Africa, Kenya and Thailand, Sudan and Myanmar, India and Indonesia are manifested by our division of responsibility for this crucial region between three commands, EUCOM, CENTCOM and PACOM. While inter-command coordination is better than ever, our outdated division of the world hinders us from understanding the changed strategic environment. For example, the boundary between EUCOM and CENTCOM is drawn as well as it could be (in the absence of a GIO-specific command), yet it fails to acknowledge ties of trade, religion, culture, war and colonization that date back more than a thousand years. Globalization isn’t new, and millennium-old Chinese pottery shards routinely appear in excavations in East Africa.

The Cold War is over, and the 20th century is over. Our willingness to extend the presence of substantial U.S. forces in northern Europe while slighting the GIO (apart from the Middle East) makes no strategic sense. The future lies below the Tropic of Cancer, in the emerging postmodern empire built overnight by post-apartheid South Africa, in the enormous potential of Indonesia to pioneer a more successful, modern path for Islam, in the awakening capacities of India — and even in the enduring importance of Singapore, perhaps the most vital city-state since Athens.

The GIO harbors terrible threats, as well (and not merely that possible, but unlikely, military confrontation between the U.S. and China): Nuclear-armed Pakistan is a Hamlet among nations, unsure of its identity and unable to decide on a decisive course of action. As in the play, the last act could litter the stage with bodies. Bangladesh, a human disaster, is prey to Islamist militancy. Beyond the familiar struggles in the Horn of Africa, the growing tension between jihadi Islam and the African Church Militant has already resulted in regional bloodlettings, from Sudan west to Nigeria. Saudi Arabia is doomed — its violent collapse only a matter of time, be it years or decades. And Iran remains a powerful short-term threat, but is also a potential U.S. ally in the longer term (Persians are a friendless, proud, hated people in a very nasty neighborhood). For now, the world continues to gulp Middle-Eastern oil, creating an immediate set of problems. Tomorrow, a diminished appetite for oil and the implosion of bankrupt regional states may generate other challenges entirely.

No other region of the world offers such potential — and presents so many intractable problems.

How might the future of the GIO look, if the United States thinks clearly and acts deftly (admittedly a tall order)? We should strive to build a new regional alliance aligning the United States with, in the first rank, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, India, Iran (in the out-years) and South Africa. Desirable secondary allies would include New Zealand, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Kenya (if its government can be reformed), the islands with flags, and, perhaps, Tanzania, Mozambique and Malaysia. The challenge, of course, is for all of these governments, including our own, to move beyond the past century’s prejudices and petty bickering to grasp our commonality of interests.

A greater Indian Ocean strategic alliance could be to the 21st century what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was to the 20th: A military alliance that prevents a catastrophic war and fosters regional cooperation. But we need to have the vision to see beyond yesteryear’s divisions of the world — and to grasp that command of the Indian Ocean will be decisive to the global future.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army intelligence officer, a former enlisted soldier and the author of 20 books, including the recent “New Glory, Expanding America’s Global Supremacy.”