Jamil Maidan Flores: The Indian Ocean Idea


JUNE 14, 2015

Writing in 2009 for Foreign Affairs, political scientist Robert D. Kaplan said that the Indian Ocean is not just a geographic feature. “The Indian Ocean,” he said, “is also an idea. It combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the rise of India and China to reveal a multilayered multipolar world.”

He was referring to the “arc of Islam” that swings from the Sahara Desert through the great bays of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal to peninsular Malaysia and archipelagic Indonesia. That arc has a venerable history — of a faith that spread on the trade winds. But not even Kaplan could foresee that in less than half a decade a self-anointed “caliphate” would brashly claim the arc as its constituency. A claim that is an existential threat to many nations.

Kaplan did refer to “the strategic nightmare of the greater Middle East.” But he was writing before the Arab Spring, when Hosni Mubarak was still entrenched in Egypt and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi still seemed immortal, and he didn’t imagine the fiery chaos that today engulfs the region. The terrorist attacks of November 2012 on Mumbai was still fresh on his mind and he seemed to anticipate that the two main sources of instability on the Indian Ocean rim would be Pakistan and Myanmar. Today the biggest headaches on the Indian Ocean rim actually lie farther to the west.

But he had a good idea of the exponential growth of demand for energy in India and China. Global energy needs, he said, would rise by 45 percent between 2006 and 2030, almost half of that growth in demand will be coming from India and China alone. And the whole Indian Ocean seaboard, including the eastern coast of Africa, will be an immense network of energy trade. By then, India will be the world’s biggest energy consumer and home to the world’s largest population.

Today, the Indian Ocean seaboard is already in a complex state of flux. A civil war is raging in Yemen, in which neighboring countries are involved. The military implications of the economic rise of India and China are already playing out in the Indian Ocean, with China building a “string of pearls” and India matching it pearl by pearl, port by port.

The situation calls for a hefty dose of regionalism. In fact, it calls for a regional architecture, the kind that Asean and partners are attempting to build on the Pacific Ocean side. OK, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is already there but it has a narrow project-oriented agenda and doesn’t have the vision and mission of a regional architecture builder.

Still IORA is the Indian Ocean region’s best hope for a body that could manage potential conflict and also devise a strategic approach to the region’s politico-security, economic and socio-cultural aspirations. It won’t be easy for IORA to become such a body. Its 20 members are extremely diversified in terms of size and stages of political, economic and social development. But the attempt must be made. The alternative is to let events in the Indian Ocean hurtle forward unmanaged, with probably disastrous results.

On this Indonesia, which will lead IORA starting later this year, and Australia, the current chair, as well as South Africa and India and even Iran will have much to say. China and the US, as IORA dialogue partners, should be supportive should IORA go into architecture building. Care should also be taken that the smaller members aren’t made to feel they’re being dictated upon.

The Indian Ocean is indeed an idea. A great idea. But whether it’s an idea whose time has come will depend on how it’s managed for the 21st century.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own.