By Robert D. Kaplan
Amitav Ghosh is to my mind the most brilliant, serious fiction writer alive today. His emerging Ibis trilogy, about individuals caught up in the 19th-century opium trade in the Indian Ocean, has the sweep of Leo Tolstoy and a linguistic intricacy that might have impressed James Joyce. In 2000, Ghosh published The Glass Palace, an epic historical novel spanning decades about Indian migration throughout the Bay of Bengal, the eastern half of the Indian Ocean. The novel takes place in what used to be known as Burma, Bengal, India and Malaya. I had the good fortune to read it some years back in Kolkata, near the top of the bay.
The Bay of Bengal constitutes a single world of Indian migration throughout maritime Southeast Asia. The bay in earlier times was essentially the Chola Sea, recalling the medieval empire of the Hindu Tamils who sent their ships as far as China. It wasn’t only imperial glory, however, that drove Tamils and other Indians to all corners of the bay, but also indentured servitude, as ethnic Indians suffered on the dense and steaming plantations of Malaya. Then there was the Indian middleman minority that played such a large role in the business community of Burma’s capital, Rangoon, a minority that supplies Ghosh with his central characters in The Glass Palace.
There is a profound geopolitical lesson here, elucidated by Sunil S. Amrith, a scholar at Birkbeck College, University of London, in Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, published in 2013. Amrith tells the story of a bay that “was once a region at the heart of global history,” but which in the second half of the 20th century “was carved up by the boundaries of nation-states, its shared past divided into the separate compartments of national histories.” In other words, throughout the medieval, early modern and modern periods of world history — under both indigenous city-states and empires, and later under the British Empire — the Bay of Bengal was one, singular civilization united by a rice culture and a common coastline that brought trade and migrants around its shores, spreading the same deities and architectural styles. And its economic impact up through the mid-20th century was global: Tamil migrant workers on Malayan rubber plantations supported the new American automobile industry, even as Burma was the largest rice exporter in the world.
The common thread in modern times was British control of not only Greater India, but Burma and Malaya, too. In this one sense at least, Western imperialism continued a pattern of cultural and political unity that had gone on for centuries as far back as antiquity, and which was sundered by imperial collapse. In the place of empire came the late-20th century states of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma) and Malaysia. And this, in turn, led to an artificial division between “South Asia” and “Southeast Asia” — a division buttressed by Cold War area studies, one which seems altogether natural to us but which has, in fact, little basis in history. For the British, to use one example, required Southeast Asia to defend India, uniting in a strategic conception both sides of the bay.
But such artificial divisions are crumbling only six decades after they first came into being. The Bay of Bengal is starting to become whole again and is returning to the center of global history. The bay that once divided the Indian subcontinent from the Far East is now uniting these regions, as strategists in Washington increasingly use the term “Indo-Pacific” to describe maritime Asia. As China and India both continue their economic and military rises, they are being brought together into a new strategic geography that has more in common with pre-Cold War eras than with the Cold War itself. This was precipitated, beginning in the late-1990s, by the logic of Chinese military power, which necessitated that nearby states, especially Japan and India, emerge as balancers against China.
No one interested in geopolitics can afford to ignore the Bay of Bengal any longer: One-fourth of the human race lives in a country that borders it, while more than half a billion people live on its coastal rim. This is the new-old center of the world, joining the two demographic immensities of the Indian subcontinent and East Asia.
Then there is climate change, on which the Bay of Bengal stands at the front line: Its densely populated coast and areas deep inland are often barely inches above sea level, making hundreds of millions of people susceptible to rising ocean waters, not to mention alkalinity, pollutants and increasingly unpredictable monsoonal variations. Amrith writes that “the displacement of people by rising waters appears a virtual certainty. The majority of those displaced will be in Asia, a significant proportion of them along the Bay of Bengal’s rim.” The Bay of Bengal may in the future give the media a new term, both trendy and tragic: “climate refugees.” And with that term, geography itself will be raised in stature.
The entire navigable southern rimland of Eurasia, stretching from the Horn of Africa around archipelagic Indonesia up to the Sea of Japan, is centered on the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. This is not only ground zero for climate change but also for the world’s shipping lanes. This is “a more fluid, more uncertain world,” in Amrith’s rendering.
The headlines may be in Ukraine and the Middle East, and such places are, to be sure, critical to geopolitics. But that is geopolitics only in the immediate sense. Geopolitics in the more profound, long-range sense must focus on parts of the world that emblemize a more interconnected and global history — a history that takes into account the effect of an increasingly massive human population on the health and evolution of the physical earth itself. The Bay of Bengal unites man and nature in a way arguably more dramatic than any other specific geography. The Bay of Bengal also symbolizes the importance of maritime activities that are so central to globalization. Thus, writers such as Ghosh and Amrith are writing about news to no less of an extent than the journalists of The New York Times. For they are providing us with insights about changes going on, however slowly and gradually, right under our feet.