India said on Friday it has protested the U.S. decision to conduct a patrol in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the western Indian Ocean, rejecting the U.S.’s claim that its domestic maritime law was in violation of international law.
Defending its actions, the Pentagon said it was in compliance with the international law. "I can tell you that the USS John Paul Jones , a Navy destroyer, asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Republic of the Maldives by conducting innocent passage through its territorial sea in normal operations within its exclusive economic zone without requesting prior permission," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Friday.
"That's consistent with international law. Again, we continue to maintain the right, indeed the responsibility, to fly, sail, and operate in accordance with international law," Mr. Kirby said in response to a question from reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
U.S. issues statement
Earlier, in a rare and unusual public statement, the U.S. Navy announced that its ship the USS John Paul Jones had carried out Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the Indian EEZ, adding that its operations had “challenged” what the U.S. called India’s “excessive maritime claims.”
“ 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,” the U.S. Navy’s 7th fleet said in a statement on April 7. “India requires prior consent for military exercises or manoeuvres in its exclusive economic zone or continental shelf, a claim inconsistent with international law.”
This FONOP upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims, the statement 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.
Responding to the statement, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement that the Government of India’s stated position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is that the Convention “does not authorise other States to carry out in the EEZ and on the continental shelf, military exercises or manoeuvres, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state.”
Stating that the USS John Paul Jones was “continuously monitored” transiting from the Persian Gulf towards the Malacca Straits, the MEA added, “We have conveyed our concerns regarding this passage through our EEZ to the Government of U.S.A through diplomatic channels.”
The incident is a rare falling out between the two partners in the Quadrilateral Grouping that had recently committed to upholding freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific together.
As per the annual FONOP reports released by the U.S. Department of Defence for each fiscal year, the U.S. has been regularly conducting FONOPs in Indian EEZ. The U.S. similarly carries out FONOPs against several other countries including its allies and partners. From 2007 onwards till 2017, the U.S. carried out multiple FONOPs every year challenging “excessive” Indian maritime claims. No FONOP was carried out in 2018 and 2020 and one FONOP in 2019, according to the annual reports.
A South Block official on condition of anonymity said that, it is only when it is “military manoeuvres” in our EEZ that we need nations to seek our permission and not if you are simply transiting through. And, the term military manoeuvres is not defined anywhere, the official added.
A second official also on condition of anonymity said it was the statement issued on the FONOP which was surprising more than the FONOP itself while questioning its timing.
Commenting on the development, former Navy Chief Adm Arun Prakash said on Twitter that there was an “irony” in this.
“While India ratified UNCLOS in 1995, the U.S. has failed to do it so far. For the 7th Fleet to carry out FoNOPs missions in Indian EEZ in violation of our domestic law is bad enough. But publicising it? USN please switch on IFF (Identification, friend or foe)!,” he said in a tweet.
Raising an important issue, Adm. Prakash said FONOPs by U.S. Navy ships, “ineffective as they may be,” in South China Sea (SCS), are meant to “convey a message to China that the putative EEZ” around the artificial SCS islands is an “excessive maritime claim.” “But what is the 7th Fleet message for India?” he asked.
Congress leaders also voiced surprise at the U.S. move. In a tweet, Manish Tewari said, “This never happened in the 10 years of UPA or perhaps even before that as far as I can recall . The last time I remember it being so rather in your face was 1971 - Task Force 74 - 7 th Fleet. What then happened is History. Hope the NDA/BJP shows some Oomph?”
Echoing the surprise, former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, said, “And this happened when the former U.S. Secretary of State and Climate Envoy, John Kerry, was meeting Ministers in New Delhi.”
(with PTI inputs)