This in intended to be a slightly more useful review than my first pass (below).
Kaplan presents a survey of the Indian Ocean littoral – from Oman to Zanzibar - moving clockwise about the Sea in conscious imitation of the ancient periplous (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Periplous , which were descriptions of the Mediterranean, originally as seen from the side of a ship, moving clockwise around the Sea from the Straits of Gibraltar and back round again). Kaplan focuses on the geographical aspects, very much attuned to the relations between geography and history a-la-Braudel; on the historical background of the Indian Ocean littoral, from the Arabs, the Mughals, the Portugese – up to modern times; and the geopolitical aspects of this profoundly important region.
Kaplan’s contention is that the Indian Ocean is about to replace the North Atlantic as the heart or center of the geopolitical realities of the 21st century. The reason for this is the rise of India, which is an Indian Ocean entity in large part; and the rise of China, whose energy needs, given that China is literally “walled-in” by the First Island Chain of U.S. Allies (Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Phillippines), will have to be satisfied by tankers that need to negotiate the Straits of Malacca (among other sea lanes). Moreover, just as the Indian Ocean of the 13th-17th centuries was a circle without a center (and without a geopolitical or power center), but a broadly diffused series of trading networks that produced, of necessity, a unique medieval cosmopolitanism – and notably, an Islamic medieval cosmopolitanism (!) – so, Kaplan thinks, the Indian Ocean of the coming years is set to play a similar role.
His account of a non-arabic Islam, expressed by al-Jazeera at its best, is quite fascinating and persuasive.
The key, of course, is that the U.S. play its role of elegant decline, and not teeter-off into the blood-drenched fantasies of the Neoconservatives (and their ilk) – and that China’s nationalists, of course, whom Mark Leonard calls the "neocomms", are also kept in check. (Kaplan supported the Bush War in Iraq, but has evolved, and frankly calls his earlier support a “mistake”.)
The book also contains an important admixture of travelogue, thoroughly integrated with the larger themes, as Kaplan describes the actual tour that he took about the Indian Ocean – and it is beautifully written – almost hauntingly, in places… In addition to Oman, there is much on Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Indonesia, with a final chapter on Zanzibar. One of the most interesting chapters is number 15 on Chinese naval policy.
A thoroughly impressive and important book – and a delight to read. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Consider this a six-star review.
(This is a stunning book. Rich with travel, observation, geopolitical strategy, poetry... and vision both from above and from within.... Kaplan's tour of the Indian Ocean and the revival of the Muslim-Hindic trading world-emporium of the pre-Portugese and Western entry... symbolized by a rising China in the East... and an America that, one hopes, will sanely play its role of "elegant decline"... and by Al-Jazeera.... reading this book is to hear the tectonic plates of history moving in our times....)