The United States’ concept of “freedom of navigation”

By venturing into the EEZ, The US Navy has rejected the Indian maritime claims. This has caused outrage among the Indians as they now believe that the US wants to exert authority on the Indian Ocean.

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On April 7, 2021, a 9,000-ton guided-missile destroyer, USS John Paul Jones (US 7th Fleet), waded (not strayed as it was deliberate) into the vicinity of India’s Lakshadweep Islands. The ship was 131 nautical miles away from India’s coast (12 nautical miles territory) but well within its exclusive economic zone (200 nautical miles, 370.4 kilometers).

The trespass by the US destroyer triggered indignation through all walks of life. It conjured up memories of the arrival of the 7th fleet during the Indo-Pak war of 1971. The fleet gave a message, loud and clear, to India that it should not dare finish West Pakistan, its long-cherished desire.

Read more: US Navy provokes India, conducts freedom of navigation near Lakshadweep Islands

Even Nehru, an ostensibly liberal leader, regarded the creation of Pakistan as a blunder. His rancour against Pakistan reaches a crescendo in his remarks: “I shall not have that carbuncle on my back.” During 1971, Pakistan was a US ally. Now India is in the anti-China US-backed basket. Yet, the `destroyer’ conjured up memory in India’s mind of `bitter’ American intervention.

Shockwaves for India

Congress leaders voiced surprise at the U.S. move. In a tweet, Manish Tewari said, “This never happened in the 10 years of UPA [Congress-led rule] 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 – 7th 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.”

The euphoria created by US gung-ho support for Quad and Pakistan’s exclusion from the climate conference petered out.

Read more: Pakistan not invited to Biden’s virtual climate summit

India’s foreign office tried to play down the event by stating that it was not a “military maneuver” so the USA was not bound to inform India about it. But to India’s chagrin, 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.”

The U.S. defends its actions saying they were in compliance with international laws. Even Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby justified what India calls “intransigence’ by announcing the US Navy’s move was in compliance with international law.

He told reporters, “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.”

John Kirby further stated, “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.”

Read more: India has ‘concerns’ with US for maritime operation

Bone of contention

As a face-saving gesture, India was forced to protest 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.

India’s external-affairs ministry retorted, “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 authorize other States to carry out in the EEZ and on the continental shelf, military exercises or maneuvers, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state.”

Read more: Indian Navy fears Chinese Shang Class Nuclear powered Submarine in Indian Ocean

The ministry insisted that the USS John Paul Jones was “continuously monitored” transiting from the Persian Gulf towards the Malacca Straits. 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.

Read more: The Quad: a desperate attempt by US to bully China?

The USA shrugged off India’s ennui. According to the annual FONOP reports released by the U.S. Department of Defence for each fiscal year, the U.S. had been regularly conducting FONOPs in Indian EEZ. The FONOPs were carried out in several continental shelves of several countries including its allies and partners.

The US regarded Indian maritime claim as “excessive” and in violation of International Law. 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.

The difference of opinion is due to the fact that the USA has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of Seas. India and China have ratified it with some reservations. But, the USA does not care a fig about provisos attached by China and India.

Read more: Strategic competition among emerging powers in Indian Ocean

Ashamed of the USA’s crass rebuttal, India is coining excuses to mitigate its embarrassment. To relieve pressure on the Indian government, former Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash interpreted the US “trespass” as if it were a message to China that the USA has unfettered “freedom of navigation”.

Prakash tweeted: “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 publicizing it? USN please switch on IFF (Identification, friend or foe)! Prakash added FONOPs by U.S. Navy ships, “ineffective as they may be,” in the South China Sea, 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.

Might is Right

Obviously, the USA is acting upon might-is-right policy. India itself acted upon this policy to devour princely states and annex Nepalese territory. Junagadh and Kashmir disputes are still unresolved on the UN agenda. Indian Union is an artificial sally.

In its entire history, India has never been a single nation, or one country, until united at gunpoint by the British. The artificial nature of modern India created by the British colonialists and adopted by post-colonial India generated insurgencies and separatist movements.

Read more: ‘Separatist Movements in India’ highlights Indian intentions towards Pakistan

At the time of partition, India was in grip of virulent insurgencies and separatist movements (Dravidian South, Khalistan, Seven Sisters in the North East, so on).

Wikipedia lists 68 major organizations as terrorist groups. Of them, nine are in the northeast (seven sisters states), four in the center and the east (Maoist/Naxalites), seventeen in the west (Sikh separatist groups), and thirty-eight in the northwest (Kashmir).

India kept afloat as a union only at the barrel of a gun. The Indian army chief paid a five-day visit to Bangladesh as a prelude to conducting a massive operation against the Naxalbari militants.

Read more: Day before his visit, Dhaka echoes with “Go Back Modi” slogans

The Diego Garcia headache

International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Chagos Islands has catapulted the Indian Ocean into the limelight. The ICJ `advisory’ is a blow to the UK’s forcible occupation of the Chagos Islands, including the strategic US airbase of Diego Garcia atoll (leased out to the USA by the UK).

The ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf observed, “The UK has an obligation to bring to an end its administration of Chagos archipelago as rapidly as possible.” The court ruled that the separation of Chagos Islands from Mauritius during decolonization in the 1960s constituted an “unlawful detachment” and was a “wrongful act”.

Read more: Chagos Islands: international dispute and human drama

In 1966, the U.S. signed a secret agreement with Great Britain allowing the Pentagon to use the Indian Ocean territory as an airbase in exchange for a big discount on Polaris nuclear missiles.

Three years later, hundreds of Navy Seabees arrived by ship and began pouring out two 12,000-foot runway that would become a bulwark of American Cold War strategy in the region, and a key launching pad for the first and second Gulf wars, the 1998 bombing of Iraq and invasion and carpet-bombing of Afghanistan.

Read more: Indo-US nexus in Indian Ocean & beyond

The base can house more than 2,000 troops and 30 warships at a time. It has two bomber runways, a satellite spy station, and facilities enabling the use of nuclear-armed submarines. It served as a CIA black site (like Guantanamo Bay) to interrogate and torture terror suspects including those from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

The base holds key to America’s Afghan exit plan, by the year 2024, to avoid a route at the hands of the Taliban.

Read more: Delayed US withdrawal necessary for peace in Afghanistan

Importance of the Indian Ocean

To India’s chagrin, the USA wants to exert its authority on the Indian Ocean also. Forty-seven countries have the Indian Ocean on their shores. The Indian Ocean is the third-largest body of water in the world.

It occupies 20 percent of the world’s ocean surface – it is nearly 10,000 kilometers wide at the southern tip of Africa and Australia and its area is 68.556 million square kilometers, about 5.5 times the size of the United States.

Read more: US deploys 6 B-52 strategic bombers to Indian Ocean base – Report

India’s motto is ‘whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia’. Admiral Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914) of the United States Navy highlighted the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean in these words: “whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene.”

The Indian peninsula (i.e. the Deccan and below) juts 1,240 miles into the Indian Ocean. 50 percent of the Indian Ocean basin lies within a 1,000-mile radius of India, a reality that has strategic implications.

Read more: Forget economy, India under Modi is home to contentious identity politics

Under the law of the sea, it has an exclusive economic zone of 772,000 square miles. Chennai is a mere 3,400 miles away from Perth in Australia, slightly more than the distance between New York and Los Angeles.

To dominate the Straits of Malacca (bordering Indonesia and Malaysia), India established its Far Eastern Marine Command at Port Blair in the Andamans. It has developed Port Blair as a strategic international trade center and built an oil terminal and trans-shipment port in Campal Bay in the Nicobar Islands.

Read more: India announces to begin full operations at Chabahar port by May-end

In diplomacy, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Afghan exit plan requires the USA to continue retaining Diego Garcia.

Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been writing freelance for over five decades. He has served the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan for 39 years. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies and magazines at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka et. al.). He is the author of eight e-books including The Myth of Accession. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

 

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