One of the defining features of the USA’s displeasure at China’s belligerence and domination of the South China Sea has been the frequent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) undertaken by US Naval warships in the South China Sea and also the Taiwan Straits.
These have repeatedly drawn China’s ire as it views this as a transgression of its maritime sovereignty. However, this has not deterred the USA and is often viewed as a prelude to the inevitable confrontation between the two navies that is anticipated sooner rather than later. These FONOPS are also meant to assert that the oceans are ‘global commons’ and therefore there is no restriction on the presence of warships of any country.
It is also an expression of the importance being attributed by the ‘arc of maritime democracies’ which also includes India and the other members of the Quad to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and the maintenance of a rules-based international order.
It therefore came as a surprise when the USS John Paul Jones, a US Navy guided missile destroyer, undertook a Freedom of Navigation patrol west of India’s Lakshadweep islands. The statement that followed from the US Seventh Fleet that this operation was “…inside India’s Exclusive Economic Zone, without requesting India’s prior consent , consistent with international law” raised more than a few eyebrows.
Infact, the statement went on to suggest that India had unlawful maritime claims which led India’s Ministry of External Affairs to respond with due indignation stating that “we have conveyed our concerns regarding this passage through our EEZ to the Government of USA through diplomatic channels.”