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.