FONOP in Indian Waters – UPSC GS2

  • US Navy carried out freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in the west of the Lakshadweep Islands. It lies in India’s exclusive economic zone.
  • It was done without requesting India’s prior consent.
  • Some of India’s strategic community members described this as an unnecessary provocation by the U.S. Navy.
  • Whereas the US defended its operation by stating that it is consistent with international law (UNCLOS).
What are the ambiguities in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)?
Different interpretations of the UNCLOS gave rise to the problem. For example,
  • According to the U.S Navy, India’s requirement of prior consent for the passage of foreign warships through Indian EEZs is a violation of UNCLOS.
  • Articles 56 and 58, Part V of the Law of the Sea, entitles U.S. warships to high-seas freedoms in the 200-nautical mile EEZs of another coastal state.
  • Whereas, according to India’s Interpretation, the UNCLOS does not explicitly permit the passage of military vessels in another state’s EEZ. Military exercises in the EEZ require the consent of the coastal State.
  • This position of India is also consistent with India’s domestic law (I) the Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone, (II)Other Maritime Zones of India Act of 1976.
How India responded?
India refrained from stating its differences with the US interpretation of UNCLOS because of the following reasons,
  • India understands that FONOPs give the U.S. Navy leverage in the contest with China in the South China Sea.
  • FONOPs in Indian EEZs have been relatively low compared to other countries. For example, since 2016, the U.S. Navy has carried out only three FONOPs through Indian EEZs. Whereas, U.S. warships have conducted eight FONOPs in 2019, and nine in 2020 in Chinese islands.
  • Apart from conducting FONOPs in Indian EEZ the US navy also conducted FONOPs in the territorial seas of the Maldives. It is done mainly to inform China that the U.S. Navy is committed to upholding the rules-based order in the waters of opponents and partners.
  • Choice of Lakshadweep rather than Andaman Nicobar Islands to conduct FONOPs indicates that US doesn’t want to make a rift in India-U. S relation. Because maritime boundaries around the Lakshadweep are more settled than the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
What are the lessons for India?
  1. FONOPs makes Indian waters vulnerable to incursions by foreign warships. It encourages other regional navies to violate India’s domestic regulations in the waters surrounding the Andaman and Nicobar Island.
  2. India should also rethink its stand on freedom of navigation in the EEZs. Because, India’s domestic regulation is not in concurrence with international law (UNCLOS). For example, India’s declaration of straight baselines delineating zones around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a violation of UNCLOS law.

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