Admiral James Stavridis, retired Supreme Commander of NATO forces, the only naval officer to reach that post, takes the reader on a voyage of oceans’ history ending each chapter with relevance for today’s geopolitics. He has intertwined his personal experiences as a sailor wherever he was involved, throughout the narrative. The book is divided into nine chapters named after four oceans i.e. Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and the Mediterranean, South China and Caribbean seas with ‘Outlaw Sea’ and ‘ America and the Oceans’ as the last two.
He has compared the present US government’s policy to pull out of ‘Trans Pacific Partnership,’ ‘Dissolve NATO,’ ‘Repudiate linkages with allies around the world’ with similar isolationist mindset prevailing between the two world wars resulting in grave misjudgment. He has quoted Churchill: “Our merchant seamen displayed their highest qualities and the brotherhood of the seas was never more strikingly known than in their determination to defeat the U-boat” referring to 300 German submarines torpedoing some 3000 merchant ships. Each chapter’s ocean or sea is accompanied by two maps, one old and one modern. The one of the Indian Ocean printed in 1726 having epigraph ‘India is the center around which its ocean turns’ and the modern one ‘The Indian Ocean will remain a driving economic force in the world oceans for decades to come’ with the chapter’s title ‘The Indian Ocean: The Future Sea’ sums up the text of the chapter.
After the British withdrawal from the Indian Ocean, US and Soviet Union entered to fill up the vacuum. The Soviets, contrary to expectations, did not establish any permanent warm water port base but the US did on Diego Garcia island of the Chagos Archipelago leased from the UK. But the author does not mention the plight of Chagos islanders who were forced into Mauritius to eke out a living there as refugees. He believes Shia-Sunni divide makes Arabian Gulf volatile, and calls India-Pakistan cold war the most dangerous flashpoint. He has suggested five point role for the US there. It should recognise the Indian Ocean as of vital importance. Second, importance of India, a vibrant legitimate democracy which will become the most populous nation. ‘In this century, the rise of India may be the most important single geopolitical driver, and its engagement in the Indian Ocean will be an enormous part of that.’ Third, build more exercises in the region like the recently completed Malabar, which brought US, Japan and India together. Fourth, counter piracy measures. As commander of NATO, if he could bring Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Iran (who are no friends of NATO) to cooperate, ‘there are few things that cannot be successfully done.’ Fifth, (without mentioning how it can be done) use US diplomacy to solve India-Pakistan conflict and Shia-Sunni divide in the Arabian Gulf. ‘How the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean unfolds will be a crucial vector for the overall trends of the twenty-first century geopolitics.’
Stavridis has quoted vitriolic remarks from ‘Dabiq’ magazine of the Islamic State. In order to stop possible infiltration of its jihadists from Libya into Italy, the nearest European shores, he has suggested invoking NATO for its involvement in different ways. An 1811 map of the South China Sea is titled ‘East India Isles’. Author calls it ‘a likely zone of conflict’. He recalls a visit to the prison in Hanoi where senator (then Navy pilot) John McCain was held and tortured. Vietnamese are interested in the US ‘because of the economic, political and military benefits that would allow Vietnam to maintain an independent posture vis-a-vis China’.
International scholars agree that China’s new strategy to build artificial islands in the South China Sea is preposterous. ‘International courts have ruled definitively against China which simply ignored them and continued to aggressively build and conduct its maritime operations as though it owned the South China Sea in its entirety.’ Therefore, he suggests, the US must maintain open communication with China. The US should strengthen relationship with existing allies and encourage them to work together better e.g. enabling conversations at events like Shangri-La Dialogue (an annual gathering of strategic thinkers in Singapore) and encouraging TrackI (government channel) and Track II (non government channel) engagements; lift ban on weapons sale to Vietnam. The US should sternly emphasise in international forums like UN, G-7 and ASEAN that fundamental tenets of international law are against China. The US should itself sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Last, traditional rights of transit (mare liberum) should be enforced through China’s claims at sea and in air. Now is the time. He has pointed out that in UNCLOS, the conditions under which nations can transit another nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (200 nautical miles) are somewhat ambiguous. The US chooses to interpret it as permitting to conduct national surveillance (a euphemism for spying) outside territorial waters i.e.12 miles. China, India and others vehemently dispute this. Overall, the South China Sea will be a maritime hinge upon which huge geopolitical issues will swing.
Section on ‘Peril of the Arctic Ocean’ is eye opener. ‘Every time the earth’s temperature rises one degree, the temperature at the North Pole rises five degrees, largely the result of methane gas.’ The warming effect on the permafrost there could be the catalytic event that drives global disaster. According to Stavridis, in spite of possessing Alaska, the US has never placed a great deal of emphasis on the Arctic. The US has only one icebreaker, Russia has 30. It is notable, however, that American submarines can resurface in the Arctic, breaking the pack ice. The Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum, has 8 permanent members and 12 observers, India being one of them! Besides, indigenous people living north of the Arctic circle have permanent representation. Even in the Arctic Ocean, UNCLOS applies. In the Outlaw Sea author has considered piracy, illegal fishing and damage to environment. Connection between Somali piracy and terrorism and Islamic State has come to light. ‘But the biggest act of criminal behaviour on the high seas is the wilful and preventable damage to the environment that goes on every day.’
In the final chapter he has enunciated ‘A Naval Strategy For The Twenty-first Century,’ which I observe, is the most important part of the book. One is astonished to read “the fact that the overwhelming bulk of internet activity travels along submarine cables fails to register with the public. High flying satellites orbiting the crowded skies, continent-spanning microwave towers and a million miles of old 20th century copper phone wire all carry but a fraction of the Earth’s Internet traffic compared with deep sea fibre optic cables.” Signals capacity of satellites is severely limited whereas underwater fibre optic cables deliver signals at nearly the speed of light.
Author has explained the principles of the theory of Sea Power expounded by Alfred Thayer Mahan the late 19th century American naval strategist fairly in detail with its relevance today. The US has 7 fleets located in different parts of the world. He advocates 8th one to be stationed in the Indian Ocean. Calling India an emerging superpower, he recommends strengthening ties with India at all levels, particularly cooperating in maritime realm including sale of AEGIS missile ships and operation of nuclear submarines. Surprisingly, no mention is made of 1971 Bangladesh war and unwelcome arrival of the 7th fleet in the Bay of Bengal. This book, full of valuable information, is a must read for anyone interested in the geopolitics of the world oceans.
Captain Milind R Paranjpe, ex- Dufferin, is a retired master mariner with over 50 years in shipping. He is the author of “Ramblings of Sea Life,” a book of some of his experiences at sea. He can be contacted at email@example.com