A seemingly small but significant incident has served a timely warning to the United States that it should neither over-estimate Indian security commitment against China nor neglect the ultimate and longstanding Indian ambition of eventually becoming a global power which is not willing to be a proxy of any other great power.
In an exceptional development, the US Navy has formally announced that it has carried out a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to challenge India’s maritime claims which the US Navy described as “excessive.”
Although the Indian officials have attempted to play it down, in order to ensure that they do not provoke the US further but the strategic significance of this event cannot be ignored and deserves a contextual analysis.
US asserting its navigational rights
According to the US Navy’s 7th Fleet’s Public Affairs department, in an unprecedented event, on April 7, 2021 one of the United States Navy’s premier guided missile destroyer, John Paul Jones, denied the Indian excessive maritime claims by asserting its navigational rights and freedom, approximately 130 miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone.
The US Navy’s official statement also described the Indian demand for prior consent for military exercises, maneuvers in its exclusive economic zones or continental shelf as inconsistent with international law.
Furthermore, the US Navy’s official statement also described its naval warship’s action as a “Freedom Of Navigation Operation” (FONOP), in exercise of the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea, recognized under the international law and called the Indian maritime claims as “excessive.”
It further warned New Delhi that the US Navy routinely and regularly conducts Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP), as it has done in the past and will continue in the future.”
The most significant part of the US statement was the expression of anger reflected in the last sentence that “FONOPs are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements.”
India is a signatory of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982 but New Delhi has added additional requirements for foreign vessels passing through India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which includes prior notification before using Indian EEZ.
This latest US Navy’s statement indicates that the United States neither recognizes nor intends to recognize the additional Indian requirement of prior notification, beyond the international legal requirements as per UNCLOS.
The initial Indian response to this incident was one of disappointment at the US public dismissal of Indian requirements which seems aimed at pacifying the domestic audience and reducing the public humiliation at the Indian failure to impose its demands upon the US Navy.
Former Indian Naval Chief Admiral Arun Prakash has described the US action as a “violation of India’s rules, uncalled for and unnecessary, especially in the context of a friend and strategic partner.”
The Indian ambitions
This incident, though apparently seems small and rare, is a useful reflection of the divergent American and Indian strategic cultures and expectations which the ambitious Indo-Pacific strategy had so far gravely neglected.
In this difficult relationship, the United States expects greater space and accommodation from India whereas New Delhi, increasingly conscious of its own growing status, expects greater respect than what Washington is willing to give to New Delhi.
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One reason is that in reality, India has never been an ally of any superpower in the true sense of the word. During the Cold War, India very tactfully used its non-aligned posture not only to build its status as a leader of the developing world but also to attract latest defense equipment, weapons and nuclear technology from both the US and the Soviet Union, without committing its own troops in the harm’s way for anyone.
The Indian strategic culture is deeply rooted in anti-imperial thought and strongly determined to eventually becoming a global power, that will not play second fiddle to any great power.
The famous Indira doctrine has remained as ambitious and sensitive to the goal of Indian dominance of the Indian Ocean as the US considers its Monroe doctrine to be a critical and timeless pillar of its own geostrategic vital interests.
Not many people realize it today but even the 1974 Indian nuclear test was neither aimed at China nor at Pakistan because New Delhi was not facing any immediate threats from either China or Pakistan, which it had just broken up only a few years ago.
In reality, New Delhi, through its nuclear test, desired to achieve the status of a world power by joining the exclusive nuclear club.
Dwindling Indo-US cooperation
The recent Indian visit by the new US Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin also indicates that all is not well between New Delhi and Washington and like the NATO ally Turkey, India can also face US sanctions under Section 231 of CAATSA in case of buying Russian defense equipment in future such as the S-400 surface to air missile systems.
It will be interesting to see how comfortable Washington remains towards the continued Indian reliance over Russian military technologies used in the BrahMos cruise missiles and the nuclear reactor technology that powers the Indian sea-based nuclear deterrent.
The flip side is that Moscow is also increasingly uncomfortable with the growing Indian love affair with Washington not only because New Delhi has remained one of the biggest Russian arms markets but also because Moscow has several large defense collaboration programs still underway with India which New Delhi’s growing proximity with Washington could jeopardize.
Furthermore, despite the recent small scale clash with Chinese troops, India has a growing and profitable bilateral trade with Beijing and its consumer market heavily relies on the Chinese products. During the period of 2000 to 2019, the Sino-India bilateral trade has burgeoned from merely US$ 3 billion to a mammoth US$ 92.68 billion.
This also indicates that the astute Indian businessmen and traders are driven by their own individual economic and monetary considerations and are not necessarily motivated by the Indo-US strategic embrace in the political and military circles.
Should US be cautious?
In conclusion, these significant trends underscore three key dynamics of the US-India relations, not only in its current phase but will also increasingly influence its future.
First, India aims to become a global power in its own right and will try to attract maximum US political, military and technological help to achieve that objective earlier than would otherwise be possible.
Second, this latest incident of India provoking the US Navy, despite close military cooperation, reveals the true Indian political culture that it wants to use other great powers for its own interests but will not play as a second fiddle or proxy to anyone.
Third, the Indian strategic culture is characterized by New Delhi’s timeless desire to preserve its strategic autonomy for which it will even risk annoying a great power and strategic partner like the US, despite Washington offering India everything that the Indian military can dream of.
The US must not overlook the true Indian global ambitions, misread its strategic culture, over-estimate New Delhi’s commitment against China nor underestimate its permanent desire for strategic autonomy.
Syed Muhammad Ali is Director (Nuclear & Strategic Affairs) at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), a Pakistan-based think tank. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.