In an unusual move, the US Navy has declared it conducted “freedom of navigation patrols” in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) near Lakshadweep this week, without deliberately seeking New Delhi’s prior consent.
The US Navy regularly conducts such patrols in the contentious South China Sea to challenge China’s aggressive territorial claims over its neighbours. But a provocative declaration of similar patrols in India’s EEZ, at a time the US is seeking India’s cooperation in strengthening “alliances and partnerships” to foster “credible deterrence” against China in the Indo-Pacific, has raised eyebrows here. There has been no official reaction from India till now.
“This freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims,” the US 7th fleet said in a statement on April 7.
It said USS John Paul Jones, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, asserted navigational rights and freedoms around 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands.
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 in question 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 familiar with the matter said, asking not to be named.
“If you have to do anything in our EEZ, you have to notify us and take permission,” navy chief Admiral Singh said in 2019 after a Chinese vessel that had intruded into Indian waters near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was repelled.
There was no official reaction from the navy or the ministry of external affairs when this report was filed.
“US Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis. All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” the 7th Fleet statement said.
“We conduct routine and regular FONOPs, as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements,” it added. The US Navy regularly carries out FONOPs in the disputed South China Sea.
“FoN ops 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?” former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash (retd) said in a tweet on Friday.
He said 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 publicising it? USN please switch on IFF (Identification friend-or-foe)!”
The development comes at a time when the navies of India and the US have just concluded multilateral drills in the eastern Indian Ocean Region (IOR). France, India, the US, Japan and Australia carried out complex maritime drills in the eastern IOR to enhance interoperability among their navies from April 5 to April 7.
On April 7, the US Navy said in another statement that USS John Paul Jones asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Maldives by conducting “innocent passage” within its EEZ without seeking prior permission. It said this was consistent with international law.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) released its annual Freedom of Navigation (FON) Report for 2020 on March 10, 2021. These reports identify the broad range of excessive maritime claims that are challenged by the US government. “This year… US forces challenged 28 different excessive maritime claims made by 19 different claimants throughout the world,” the State Department said in a statement on March 16.
DoD’s operational challenges, also known as FONOPs, are designed to challenge coastal state maritime claims that unlawfully restrict navigation and overflight rights and freedoms and other internationally lawful uses of the sea related to these freedoms guaranteed in international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, the statement added.