Asia's Game of Thrones
China and India Racing To Build Carriers

India is scheduled to relaunch its first-ever domestically-produced aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, on May 28.

Re-launch? Well, yes—we first wrote about the Vikrant back in August of 2013, when the ship was first launched to much fanfare. Back then, the Times of India was crowing about how Indian shipbuilding was far outpacing China’s own efforts. Then reality set in:

Construction woes have dogged Vikrant — which was originally awarded to Cochin in 2005 — delaying the ship by five years with reported budget overruns as high as $4 billion.

The program was largely stalled until 2014 when the newly elected Modi backed a plan to inject almost $3.18 billion into completing Vikrant in July following a visit to India’s Russian built carrier—INS Vikramaditya.

Not just content with getting the Vikrant ship-shape, however, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is investing in the future of his domestic shipbuilding program:

In addition to the relaunch of Vikrant, the Modi government has also set aside about $5 million for development of the indigenous aircraft carrier-II (IAC-II) program — INS Vishal, according to local press reports.

The planned 65,000-ton Vishal is set to be a much more complex ship than its predecessors and could introduce nuclear power and a catapult launching system for the carrier to launch heavier aircraft than India’s current crop of MiG-29K

China, for its part, has not been standing still. Back in 2013, there were sporadic leaks of work being done on what looked to be China’s first home-built carrier. Then earlier this year, Beijing semi-officially took the wraps off its plans, threatening to build up to four more, promising to have the first one ready by 2018.

Of course, this is all about boosting national prestige as much as anything else. The United States, with its many decades of experience building and operating a carrier fleet, will nevertheless remain the preeminent player in the Pacific and Indian Oceans for some time to come. And the U.S. under President Obama remains committed to balancing (quite publicly, lately) against China’s regional hegemonic aspirations.

To that end, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is due in India in June to sign a 10-year defense cooperation agreement. The U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma said it best last month:“The strategic premise of that is that if U.S. and India are the closest of partners, not just in South Asia, but across Asia and globally, the world would be a safer and more prosperous place. That is the power of having two large democracies coming together. There is so much good that can come out of it.” Indeed.

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