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World Politics Review March 18, 2009

War Is Boring: Military Balance with China Depends on Indian Carriers

By David Axe

On March 8, five Chinese trawlers surrounded and harassed the USNS Impeccable, a civilian-crewed naval survey ship sailing in international waters on the South China Sea, resulting in a week-long diplomatic tiff. The Chinese government accused the ship of spying on its naval forces. Washington eventually admitted that was true, but insisted it had every right to do so. (See James Kraska's WPR Briefing.) In the wake of the incident, both sides moved in reinforcements. The U.S. Navy sent a destroyer to escort Impeccable on future missions; Beijing deployed a patrol vessel to the area.

Some pundits declared the confrontation a harbinger of a naval arms race in the region, fueled by the rising power of India and China and the perceived weakness of a shrinking U.S. fleet. "The March 8 incident could herald increased volatility in the maritime environment -- across the region -- for years to come," think tank Stratfor warned.

That volatility could be exacerbated by management problems plaguing America's strongest ally in the region. India is positioned to help the U.S. balance what National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair called a "more military, aggressive, forward-looking" China. But an effective alliance with India hinges on India building a truly effective regional navy -- and that's no easy task.

To be clear, Beijing and Washington are not enemies, Robert Kaplan stressed in a recent article for Foreign Affairs. Rather, China is a "legitimate peer competitor" of the United States. "The task of the U.S. Navy will therefore be to quietly leverage the sea power of its closest allies -- India in the Indian Ocean and Japan in the western Pacific -- to set limits on China's expansion."

The Pentagon's official annual report on Chinese military capabilities last year emphasized that "the People's Liberation Army Navy has the largest force of principal combatants, submarines, and amphibious warfare ships in Asia." The same report pointed out the roughly 15 percent average annual growth rate in Chinese military spending and questioned how Beijing's growing power "might be used."

In his article, Kaplan placed high hopes on India's rise as a naval power. He pointed out India's plans to acquire three home-built aircraft carriers by 2025 to replace the navy's sole current carrier, the 55-year-old Viraat. If New Delhi's plans come to fruition, the Indian navy will possess the world's second-largest carrier fleet, after the U.S.

There is "no evidence" that China is building an operational carrier, according to the Pentagon report, although Beijing has said it will do so "soon."

India's plan for three new carriers is perhaps too ambitious for a military establishment that has struggled to design and field sophisticated weapons without foreign assistance. (See Siddarth Srivastava's WPR Briefing.) India's defense industry, much of which is state-owned, has been working on a new tank design, the Arjun, for 37 years. Tests in 2007 revealed more than a dozen major flaws in the design. Indigenous aircraft designs have faced similar problems.

"The real question is money," says John Pike, an analyst with Globalsecurity.org, based in Virginia. "Acquisition programs in India have tended to drag on and on . . . but this has in part been due to a lack of money, and a lack of political resolve to spend money. Both of these factors seem to have changed of late."

There remains a wild card in India's carrier scheme. Independent of plans to build its own carriers, New Delhi has signed a contract with a Russian shipyard to refurbish and deliver a retired Russian carrier, the Gorshkov, to take Viraat's place until the third home-built carrier enters service. The vessel was supposed to be delivered in late 2008 at a cost of $800 million, but Moscow delayed the work and demanded another $2.1 billion. It's unclear how New Delhi will respond.

"The two countries have so many other irons in the fire that I assume the Indians will find some other pain points to induce the Russians to finally deliver the goods," Pike speculates.

Even so, any or all of India's four planned carriers could be hamstrung by the deepening global recession, according to Bob Work, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "The requirements will remain on the books," Work says, but production could get delayed.

And that could have a serious impact on America's evolving strategy for balancing a more aggressive, and more heavily armed, China.

David Axe is an independent correspondent, a World Politics Review contributing editor, and the author of "War Bots." He blogs at War is Boring. His WPR column, War is Boring, appears every other Wednesday.


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