The 7th Fleet of the US Navy says it has sent a warship 130 nautical miles (about 224 kilometres) west of India’s Lakshadweep islands to assert “navigational rights and freedoms”, in a move that came amidst an upswing in ties between New Delhi and Washington.
An unusual press note by the 7th Fleet Public Affairs — datelined Philippine Sea, April 7 — admitted that “India’s prior consent” was not requested, but went on to say the move was in line with “international law”.
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 official reaction from India immediately.
“India requires prior consent for military exercises or maneuvers in its exclusive economic zone 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,” the 7th Fleet note said.
The development caught geo-political watchers by surprise because it came at a time when the two countries had signalled close cooperation to tackle the China threat in the Indo-Pacific.
Leaders of India, the US, Japan and Australia — a bloc known as Quad — held a virtual meeting on March 12 that observers termed “historic”. The leaders discussed vaccines, climate change, emerging technologies, and promoting a secure, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific.
Recently, the Quad members also joined France in a war game in the Indian Ocean, in an apparent message to Beijing.
The 7th Fleet aggression in such a backdrop was unexpected. “U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis. All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” its note said.
Former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash said it was an “unnecessary move by a friendly country”. Incidentally, he said, the US was one of the few countries that did not sign “the international law the US quotes”.
He added that the move was probably a “message aimed at China”, but it “doesn’t make sense to send that message” from the Indian Ocean Region.
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