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India Activates Diplomatic Channels, Conveys Concerns Over US Navy Warship Near Lakshadweep

The 7th Fleet of the US Navy. (Reuters file pic)

The 7th Fleet of the US Navy. (Reuters file pic)

While India says a prior notice for such manoeuvres is needed, the US Navy's 7th Fleet maintains it conducts “routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations”.

New Delhi has conveyed its concerns to Washington using diplomatic channels over the recent passage of a US warship through India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near Lakshadweep islands, the external affairs ministry said on Friday.

The statement came hours after it emerged that the 7th Fleet of the US Navy had sent a warship 130 nautical miles (about 224 kilometres) west of Lakshadweep to assert “navigational rights and freedoms” — a move experts described as “unnecessary” at a time when ties between Washington and New Delhi were on the upswing.

“The Government of India’s stated position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is that the Convention does not authorise other States to carry out in the Exclusive Economic Zone 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,” a statement by India said.

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”.

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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 by guided missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones was in line with “international law”.

The foreign ministry statement added: “The USS John Paul Jones was continuously monitored transiting from the Persian Gulf towards the Malacca Straits (the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean). We have conveyed our concerns regarding this passage through our EEZ to the Government of U.S.A through diplomatic channels.”

To be sure, this was not the first time that a US warship passed through India’s EEZ without permission. But what is unusual is the 7th Fleet’s aggressive press note. “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,” the 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 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 development also came close on the heels of high-profile visits by Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, and John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, to India.

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.

The 7th Fleet has a history with India. It is infamous for sailing into the waters of the Bay of Bengal in 1971, when the war for Bangladesh’s liberation was underway. In September 2019, the Indian Navy chased away a Chinese research vessel from the Indian waters in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Back then, Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh said: “Our stand is that if you have to do anything in our EEZ (exclusive economic zone), you have to notify us and take permission.”

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