For several years now, the relationship of the U.S. and India has been marked by their sensitivity to each other’s concerns as they deepened cooperation on strategic issues, and aligned positions on multilateral issues.
As a result, the April 7 press release by the U.S. Navy that announced that its 7th fleet’s Destroyer, the USS John Paul Jones, had traversed India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in order to “challenge” India’s claim that it must be notified before any military activity in these waters came as a surprise, particularly as it followed two successful visits by senior U.S. officials, including the U.S. Defence Secretary and Climate Envoy to Delhi.
In the press release, the U.S. Navy said its ship had “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,” claiming this was “consistent” with international law, referring to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While the U.S.’s decision to conduct “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) is not new, as it regularly carries out such operations in order to “assert” international law off the coasts of 19 countries, most notably China, what appears to be new is the statement issued by the U.S. Navy itself.
The government, which responded to the operation on April 9, said it had expressed its “concerns” to the U.S. government through diplomatic channels. In addition, India contested the U.S. claim about international law, saying that UNCLOS did not authorise military manoeuvres on the continental shelf or EEZ, as the 7th fleet had carried out, without prior consent.
While the matter has been disposed of diplomatically for the moment, it is clear that the government must prepare to grapple with the issue with the U.S. in the long term.