America and India Need a Little Flexibility at Sea

By Foreign policy

Headlines recently shrieked outrage in India after an April 7 announcement from the U.S. 7th Fleet that it had conducted a freedom of navigation operation (commonly referred to as a FONOP) in the Indian Ocean targeting Indian claims.

Some Indian commentators were shocked to learn that the United States, a burgeoning strategic partner, was publicly boasting about sailing warships through Indian waters to challenge India’s “excessive maritime claims”—an indignity they assumed was reserved for mutual rivals like China.

The operation generated a mini firestorm in India, providing fuel for skeptics opposed to stronger India-U.S. ties. It was paraded around as evidence of America’s unreliability, an affront to Indian sovereignty, and an act of hypocrisy from a country that has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

But there’s nothing new in this. The United States has conducted FONOPs directed at Indian maritime claims regularly since at least 1992. The U.S. Navy conducted at least six India-related FONOPs between then and 2003 and, with two exceptions, every year between 2007 and 2021. It’s a position consistent with the long-standing U.S. commitment to freedom of passage: one that gains credibility by not being directed at strategic rivals alone.

The FONOP program, which began in 1979, is designed to challenge maritime claims the United States finds inconsistent with international law.

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