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13th April 2021 – Editorials/Opinions Analyses


  1. Not on the same page at sea



The US Navy announced that the USS John Paul Jones from its 7th Fleet had “asserted navigational rights and freedoms inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent”.

However, India has protested this decision, rejecting the U.S.’s claim that its domestic maritime law was in violation of international law- the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).


GS-III: Indian Economy (Economic Growth and Development, Planning usage and Mobilisation of resources, Inclusive growth and issues therein)

Mains Questions:

What are the implications of the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) carried out by the U.S. in Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) recently? How can the two countries move forward towards a better understanding? (10 marks)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. About the recent tussle regarding U.S. FONOP in India’s EEZ
  2. In time of Quad, a new SOP
  3. FONOP
  4. In support of FONOP

About the recent tussle regarding U.S. FONOP in India’s EEZ

  • Indian Ministry of External Affairs responded that the government’s stated position on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) “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”.
  • According to UNCLOS, the EEZ “is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, subject to the specific legal regime” under which “the rights and jurisdiction of the coastal State and the rights and freedoms of other States are governed by the relevant provisions of this Convention”.
  • As per India’s Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and Other Maritime Zones Act, 1976, the EEZ of India “is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial waters, and the limit of such zone is two hundred nautical miles from the baseline”.
  • India’s “limit of the territorial waters is the line every point of which is at a distance of twelve nautical miles from the nearest point of the appropriate baseline”.
  • Under the 1976 law, “all foreign ships (other than warships including sub-marines and other underwater vehicles) shall enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial waters”, innocent passage being one that is “not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of India”.

In time of Quad, a new SOP

  • A new Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) adopted by the US Navy to underline its freedom of navigation is behind the unusual public statement issued by the Seventh Fleet on its warship entering India’s Exclusive Economic Zone west of Lakshadweep Islands.
  • It’s now left to diplomats from both sides to dial down the temperature, especially since both countries have developed close cooperation in the wake of the Naval exercises involving the Quad grouping.
  • From the US perspective, the FONOP — Freedom of Navigation Operations — is “country-neutral”, and the US Navy carried them as it would have done in the South China Sea or any other maritime domain. It has also been issuing public statements to underline its freedom of navigation.
  • But Delhi has been accommodative of these US FONOP operations and has, in the past, not challenged the movement of the US naval fleet. Also, the US’s conventional approach of listing these operations as part of its annual reports has been “taken note of” by South Block. But this time, it’s the specific “operation-wise statement” that has created disquiet in Delhi. The Indian establishment is particularly perturbed at the fact that it was caught unawares at the public statement made by the Seventh Fleet.


  • FONOP: Simply put, the Freedom of Navigation Operations involves passages conducted by the US Navy through waters claimed by coastal nations as their exclusive territory.
  • According to the US Department of Defense (DoD), the FON Program has existed for 40 years, and “continuously reaffirmed the United States’ policy of exercising and asserting its navigation and overflight rights and freedoms around the world”.
  • The DoD says these “assertions communicate that the United States does not acquiesce to the excessive maritime claims of other nations, and thus prevents those claims from becoming accepted in international law”.
  • While this is not the first time something like this has happened, this is the first time the US Navy has issued a public statement giving details of the operation.
  • Usually, in the past, the DoD has mentioned all FONOP challenges and assertions in its annual report to Congress.

7th fleet

  • 7th fleet is the largest of the US Navy’s forward deployed fleets. According to its website, “at any given time there are roughly 50-70 ships and submarines, 150 aircraft, and approximately 20,000 Sailors in Seventh Fleet”.
  • India had a close encounter with the 7th fleet during the 1971 war with Pakistan.

Bridging the divide

  • There are lessons for both India and the U.S. from l’affaire Lakshadweep, the U.S. must recognise that FONOPs have implications for New Delhi that go beyond the infringement of Indian jurisdiction in the near seas.
  • Such operations normalise military activism close to India’s island territories that remain vulnerable to incursions by foreign warships.
  • The U.S. Navy’s emphasis on navigational freedoms in the EEZs encourages other regional navies to violate India’s domestic regulations in the waters surrounding the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
  • U.S. hectoring on the subject isn’t acceptable as Washington is yet to ratify the UNCLOS.
  • But New Delhi, too, must rethink its stand on freedom of navigation in the EEZs. It isn’t enough for Indian officials and commentators to say U.S. FONOPs are an act of impropriety.
    India’s declaration of straight baselines delineating zones around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (on the Western edge), in particular, is a discrepancy that cannot be explained as a minor departure from the provisions of the UNCLOS.

In support of FONOP

  • Threats to freedom of navigation in the past have been multiple, including manifestly hostile and life-threatening ones, such as terrorism against private shipping in the Middle East and resurgent piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. But maritime threats can also be less visible yet equally destructive to national and economic security.
  • Among such threats to freedom of navigation are “excessive maritime claims” — that is, foreign laws, proclamations, or decrees that assert more control over the maritime environment than allowed by international law.
  • These claims seek to restrict navigation and overflight rights or other lawful uses of the seas.
  • They can be restrictions on military exercises in international waters, prohibitions on the transit of nuclear-powered vessels, assertions of security authority beyond territorial sea limits, or any number of other restrictions inconsistent with the law of the sea.
  • By undermining the rules-based international order, these illegitimate assertions of authority, born out of patent self-interest, are a danger to international peace and security.
  • As part of the rules-based order that has benefited all nations since World War II, the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) strikes a deliberate balance between maritime control by coastal states, on the one hand, and navigational freedoms for all, on the other.
  • From a defense perspective, this balance decreases the risk of military miscalculation, but it also promotes cooperation in other areas, like law enforcement, scientific exploration, and commercial development.

-Source: The Hindu

December 2023