Back to the Future: the Indian Ocean Again a Center of Global Activity

For over a thousand years up to the 17th century the Indian Ocean was arguably the center of merchant activity. It was the Maritime route of the several Silk Roads. In the 15th century it became the lustful focus of the rising Portuguese Empire as they pushed East. 

In a recent book, The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, by Oxford educated scholar and economist Sanjeev Sanyal, this history is recounted in an interesting and fairly comprehensive way. (My favorite book on the history and importance of the Indian Ocean remains however Empires of the Monsoon by Richard Hall.) 

What especially interested me about Sanyal’s book is his understanding of the connectedness across the Indian Ocean, and indeed his awareness of the growing field of “connected history ” in general. I was again irritated, however, by his seeming ignorance of the spread and importance of the Church of the East in merchant activity in Asia during these centuries. (as I have noted before about many other histories of Asia and the World, the ignorance is not unusual, but still is irritating!)

With the rise of the economies of South and Southeast Asia, as well as the potential of East Africa and other African regions, the Indian Ocean is again becoming a place of key importance for the present and future. China is moving quickly to secure major influence in the Ocean and the Arabian Sea, presently seeking to see a new port developed in Ghadar in Pakistan as well as strategic influence in Sri Lanka. 

The Chinese push for strategic influence in the Indian Ocean involves major financial investment in Africa as well as Asia. India has felt rightly threatened by some of these developments, and the battle for influence continues. The world can only hope that this battle does not become weaponized. 

In the midst of all these developments, the USA “America First ” push under newly elected President Trump sometimes seems to much of the world like a sideshow connected more to the past than a dynamic present and especially an “Asian-African future”. The USA perhaps moving more towards isolationism, whether economic or otherwise, is not a good thing for the rest of the world. 

But if it continues, the world will not stop activity. Watch what will happen in the next 50 years. If you want front row seats for the dynamic action of the next decades, get them where you can have your eyes on the Indian Ocean. 

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