India on Friday conveyed its concerns to the US over an American warship transiting through the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without prior consent in what was described by the US Navy as a “freedom of navigation operation”.
Though the US Navy has conducted similar operations in Indian waters in recent years, these were not publicized — unlike the latest operation on 7 April. The US Navy’s 7th Fleet issued a press release that said the freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) by the guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones “upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims”.
The strongly worded US Navy release didn’t go down well with the defence ministry or the external affairs ministry, especially at a time when the US and India are working jointly to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific through forums such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, people familiar with the developments said, asking not to be named.
“The USS John Paul Jones was continuously monitored transiting from the Persian Gulf towards the Malacca Straits. We have conveyed our concerns regarding this passage through our EEZ to the government of USA through diplomatic channels,” the external affairs ministry said in a statement.
India’s stated position on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is that the convention “does not authorize other states to carry out in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf, military exercises or manoeuvres, in particular, those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state”, the statement added.
The US Navy’s release said USS John Paul Jones “asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent, consistent with international law”.
The release noted that India’s position on prior consent for military exercises or manoeuvres in its EEZ or continental shelf was “inconsistent with international law”. It further said the US Navy conducts routine and regular FONOPs and will continue to do so in future, and that such operations “are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements”.
The 7th Fleet is the largest of the US Navy’s forward-deployed fleets. The US had sent elements of the 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal to pressure India during the 1971 war with Pakistan that ended with the liberation of Bangladesh.
Every coastal country’s EEZ extends to 200 nautical miles (370km) from its shores, and the country has exclusive rights to all resources in the water, including oil, natural gas and fish. Any military activity in the EEZ requires India’s permission, navy officials said, asking not to be named.
“If you have to do anything in our EEZ, you have to notify us and take permission,” Indian Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh said in 2019 after a Chinese vessel was repelled following an intrusion into Indian waters near Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Former navy chief Admiral (retd) Arun Prakash tweeted: “FoNops by USN ships (ineffective as they may be) in South China Sea, are meant to convey a message to China that the putative EEZ around the artificial SCS islands is an ‘excessive maritime claim.’ But what is the 7th Fleet message for India?”
He added in another tweet, “There is irony here. While India ratified UN Law of the Seas in 1995, the US has failed to do it so far. For the 7th Fleet to carry out FoN missions in Indian EEZ in violation of our domestic law is bad enough. But publicizing it? USN please switch on IFF (Identification friend-or-foe)!”
The development comes soon after the navies of India and the US concluded multilateral drills in the eastern Indian Ocean. France, India, the US, Japan and Australia carried out complex maritime drills in the region to enhance interoperability among their navies during 5-7 April.
The US defence department’s annual freedom of navigation reports posted online show that US warships conducted “freedom of navigation challenges” in India’s EEZ in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019. These operations were conducted mainly to challenge India’s “excessive maritime claims”, the reports said. However, no press releases were issued at the time to publicize these operations.