BOOK REVIEW – Incidents at Sea: American Confrontations and Cooperation with Russia and China, 1945-2016

Winkler, David F., Incidents at Sea: American Confrontations and Cooperation with Russia and China, 1945-2016. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2017. 320 pp. 

Review by LT Anthony Rush, USN
Senior Instructor, Department of History, USAF Academy

In Incidents at Sea: American Confrontations and Cooperation with Russia and China, 1945-2016, David Winkler gives an overview of the political and maritime histories of the U.S. in relation to those of the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War and beyond. In particular, noting the title of his work, Winkler examines a multitude of incidents at sea – above in the air, below underwater and on the surface – that have critically impacted U.S. interaction with these two powers in recent history. Excepting the first chapter, in which Winkler uses an aggressive encounter between the Soviet and U.S. navies in 1972 to introduce the first diplomatic steps to establishing naval rules of interaction between the two fleets, Winkler takes a chronological approach to his work. Through the course of the book, each chapter delves into a certain period, starting with intensifying Soviet Union-U.S. relations coming out of WWII continuing into President’s Nixon policy of détente in the 1970’s, and eventually ending with modern incidents that occurred as recently as 2014. 

In his work, Winkler argues there is a common innate tie between mariners that transcends nationalities that would ultimately reduce the number of incidents that would occur between navies of different countries. But he does not neglect the formal diplomatic agreements that have been made between the nations. In particular, he focuses on the “Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Incidents on and over the High Seas” (INCSEA), examining its effect on the development of the naval relations between the U.S.S.R./Russia and the U.S. He does not diminish the role of INCSEA but does largely note the limitations of it when the respective U.S.S.R.-U.S. delegations became mired in disagreements over certain definitions and standardizations within the accord – all while mishaps were continuing to occur between the two powers. This is where Winkler nods his hat to the professional mariners and airmen at sea who transcended the political disputes of their respective nations and allowed for the safe navigation of the high seas permitted under international maritime law. 

Although the subtitle of the book does include “China,” there is little mention of China until the last chapter of the work titled “A Global Legacy.” But this may be intentional by the author in an attempt to follow Sir Michael Howard’s advice: to study military history in width, depth and context. Winkler goes into outstanding detail regarding the history of the U.S.S.R./Russia and the U.S. He certainly covers the depth of the strained relations between the U.S.S.R./Russia and the U.S., giving thorough accounts of several incidents at sea as well as comprehensive examinations of the political discussions between the two nations. However, by lacking substantial discussion of the relations between China and the U.S., Winkler is introducing the width of the subject matter. These precarious incidents at sea are not isolated events between the Soviet/Russian and American navies, but are seen between other navies as well, such as situations between the Chinese and the U.S. navies. Given the author’s timeline of examination – covering the Cold War and beyond – and since the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) did not see expansion from coastal defense operations to high sea operations until the 1990’s, it is appropriate that more of the book material was dedicated to the discussion of the Soviet/Russian-American relations, especially since the INCSEA can be seen as the foundation of modern naval interactions and protocols. In having a limited discussion of the China-U.S. story within this context of incidents on the high seas, the author is perhaps setting the stage for a future work or prompting other historians to dive further into this content as well. 

Winkler uses a wide range of sources in his work. For primary sources, he uses declassified naval documents, official government records, and interviews/mail correspondence with both delegation officials and military officers involved in many of the referenced incidents at sea. Books, dissertations, and newspaper articles are among the secondary sources he uses. Put all together, Winkler expertly uses the variety of sources to give his book authenticity and substantiality, including the use of a few periodicals from the Morskoy Sbornik, a Russian magazine on naval topics.

To help convey his argument, Winkler uses different approaches to express content in order to engage the reader in varied capacities. Pictures of ships in close quarter situations portray the danger sailors found themselves in; the exalting foreword by Senator John W. Warner (Ret.) gives the work a validated prelude as Senator Warner was the chief U.S. negotiator at the INCSEA summit talks. Winkler also uses examples from other nations, such as the “Cod War” between Iceland and the United Kingdom, to augment his discussion on how third party actors influenced these seemingly bilateral issues. The forty-five page chronology, listing events related to high sea incidents from 1945 to 2017, allows readers to see how frequent these incidents occurred, how expansive this topic is within the context of international diplomacy and how critical this topic is to the modern-day sailor. 

Incidents at Sea is intended for a wide audience from the scholar to the casual reader, but it is particularly for those who possess an interest in naval history. Its meticulous recounting of the political and military developments and consequences of INCSEA offers tremendous utility to those studying in the fields of diplomacy or national security.  As a naval officer who served for over four years in the western Pacific, I appreciate the history that Winkler details between the U.S. and the other maritime powers in the region; this book would serve as a useful resource for naval officers operating within this area of responsibility to understand the history of the conflicts with which they are currently dealing. Ultimately, this book is an excellent read for any individual with an interest in understanding the naval component of the intense tensions between the U.S. and other big world players, Russia and China. 

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