The 7th Fleet of the US Navy says it has sent a warship 130 nautical miles (about 224 kilometres) west of India’s Lakshadweep islands to assert “navigational rights and freedoms”, a move experts describe as “unnecessary” at a time when ties between Washington and New Delhi are on the upswing.
An unusual press note by the 7th Fleet Public Affairs — datelined Philippine Sea, April 7 — admitted that “India’s prior consent” was not requested, but went on to say the move by guided missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones was in line with “international law”.
While Indian laws require prior notice for such a passage or manoeuvers through its “exclusive economic zone of continental shelf”, the 7th Fleet maintains that it conducts “routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs)”, which are “not about one country, nor are they about making political statements”.
There was no immediate reaction from Indian officials. Navy sources said it was a strong statement. “If this was an innocent passage, there is no violation of law. But going by the statement that the 7th Fleet has put out, this sounds like a passage exercise,” a source said.
In a passage exercise, if a foreign ship passes through the waters of a country, the latter usually accompanies it in the process — which did not happen in this case.
To be sure, this was not the first time that a US warship passed through India’s exclusive economic zone without permission; in fact, it happens regularly. But what is unusual is the aggressive press note.
“India requires prior consent for military exercises or maneuvers in its exclusive economic zone or continental shelf, a claim inconsistent with international law. This freedom of navigation operation (“FONOP”) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims,” the 7th Fleet note said.
The development caught geo-political watchers by surprise because it came at a time when the two countries had signalled close cooperation to tackle the China threat in the Indo-Pacific.
Leaders of India, the US, Japan and Australia — a bloc known as Quad — held a virtual meeting on March 12 that observers termed “historic”. The leaders discussed vaccines, climate change, emerging technologies, and promoting a secure, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific. Recently, the Quad members also joined France in a war game in the Indian Ocean, in an apparent message to Beijing.
The development also came close on the heels of high-profile visits by Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, and John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, to India.
The 7th Fleet’s aggression in such a backdrop was unexpected. “U.S. 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,” its note said.
Former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash said it was an “unnecessary move by a friendly country”. Incidentally, he said, the US was one of the few countries that did not sign “the international law the US quotes”.
He added that the move was probably a “message aimed at China”, but it “doesn’t make sense to send that message” from the Indian Ocean Region.
The 7th Fleet has a history with India. It is infamous for sailing into the waters of the Bay of Bengal in 1971, when the war for Bangladesh’s liberation was underway.
In September 2019, the Indian Navy chased away a Chinese research vessel from the Indian waters in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Back then, Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh said: “Our stand is that if you have to do anything in our EEZ (exclusive economic zone), you have to notify us and take permission.”