US Navy conducts ‘Freedom Of Navigation’ Operation near Lakshadweep Islands without India’s consent
In a move that could potentially trigger a diplomatic row, the US Navy has announced that it asserted navigational rights and freedoms inside India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without seeking India’s prior consent.
In a statement being looked at closely by the Indian government, 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.
"On April 7, 2021 (local time), the USS John Paul Jones 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, consistent with international law. India requires prior consent for military exercises or manoeuvres in its exclusive economic zone or continental shelf, a claim inconsistent with international law," said a statement by the US 7th Fleet Public Affairs.
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.
“India requires prior consent for military exercises or maneuvers in its EEZ 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,” said the US Navy’s statement.
“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 US will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” it 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.
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.
The statement would be jarring for New Delhi since the US is among India's closest strategic partners with both sides having repeatedly opposed China's maritime expansionism, particularly in the South China Sea. India and the US hold Naval exercises throughout the year.
The Indian Navy or the External Affairs Ministry are yet to respond.