Earlier this month, the US Navy courted controversy by announcing that one of its warships had conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) inside India’s exclusive economic zone without informing the country. This raised many eyebrows. Mint explores.

What is the US Navy controversy all about?

On 7 April, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet issued a release to say one of its warships, guided missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones, had asserted navigational rights and freedoms around 130 nautical miles west of Lakshadweep. This is inside an area India considers its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The EEZ of a coastal country extends up to 200 nautical miles (370km) from its shores. The country in question has exclusive rights to all resources within its EEZ. The US Navy said it had not asked India for permission for the “innocent passage” through its EEZ. India on its part contended that it should have been informed given that the ship was armed.

Was the US move unusual?

The US move is not unusual. The US department of defence reports annually document the number of FONOPS, meant to assert that the oceans are ‘global commons’ and hence there should be no restriction on the presence of warship of any country. Indian officials say US ships pass through Indian waters several times a year and without permission. But what is unusual is that the 7th Fleet issued a statement on the FONOP. Analysts say the tenor of the US statement implied that India had made unlawful maritime claims. India responded with a statement of its own—seen as measured and to the point.

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What lies at the core of the problem?

Differing interpretations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the problem. India believes the convention does not authorize states to carry out military exercises in the EEZ without the consent of the coastal state, especially if vessels are carrying arms. Analysts say UNCLOS allows innocent passage even through territorial waters.

Will the controversy affect ties?

Both sides have indicated that they would like to dial down tensions. Representatives of both regimes have made it clear that this would not be allowed to affect ties. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the USS John Paul Jones conducted “innocent passage” through waters off the Maldives, indicating that no military manoeuvres had been carried out in Indian waters. “There is a great relationship between the two countries,” said a person familiar with the developments on the Indian side.

What implications will it have on US-China?

There is speculation the US move is part of a broader plan to challenge China’s claims not only in the South China Sea, but also in the Pacific and the Taiwan Straits. This is expected to heighten tensions between the two countries. The most high-profile of US FONOPS has been in the South China Sea, which accounts for about 10% of the world’s fisheries market output. It is also the world’s second-busiest shipping route. Estimates put the value of oil in the region at 7 billion barrels.

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