On 9th June the USS John Paul Jones a US navy destroyer entered India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) close to about 130nm inside Indian territory. This was one of the first such incidents of any naval ship inside the Indian territory. This US navy claimed to operate under international law but India referred to it as a breach of its sovereignty.
This small tussle between the US navy and India was primarily a result of the different outlook of the United Nations Convention for the law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This law came into effect in 1994 but was first signed in 1982 and India ratified this law in 1995.
The UNCLOS determines the laws of the sea and most nations have been members of this convention but few like the US haven't ratified. The United States maintains that it has freedom of Navigation(FON) anywhere in the high seas but it partially recognized this UNCLOS and abides by it only in few conditions, cases like mineral deposition survey where the US justifies its freedom of navigation.
The high seas and international waters are classified into five different zones and are measured from the baseline
1.) Internal Waters: this includes all the waters that are inwards from the baseline like lakes and rivers.
2.) Territorial Sea: the distance from the baseline of 12nm from any coast. The rights in this area are less as compared to internal waters but any nation-state can exert its rights over immigration, security.
3.) Contagious Sea: in a contiguous zone a country only has rights over the surface and floor.
4) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): the distance of 200nm from the base sea is referred to as EEZ. In EEZ a sovereign state can explore this area and can use its marine resources. No other nation can carry out military operations and drills in another country's EEZ but freedom of navigation is allowed.
5.) High Seas: the area beyond EEZ is referred to as high seas and this area doesn't belong to any nation-state but is considered as international waters and can be used for any purpose by any country.
When the US warship John Paul Jones entered India’s EEZ under UNCLOS India considered it as a breach; the United States emphasized that it was under Freedom of Navigation (FON) that their destroyer entered into India’s EEZ. The issue with the US is that it has not ratified the UNCLOS as India did back in the nineties and so it often enters into the marine territories of sovereign nations.
It did it with China also when its aircraft carriers were hovering in the South China Sea. But with China, the case was a bit different as China had built hundreds of artificial islands. China constructed thousands of these tiny islands by filling a small area of a sea and then claiming that anything 200nm miles these islands would exclusively belong to the Chinese government and by doing so they could harness more resources and also install their military bases in these islands.
India has maintained a position that only civilian ships shall be allowed to pass but any military vessel needs prior permission from the government.
This intrusion could also have been a message to China as the US is also a member of the Quad alliance that its aggressive policy will not work in the Indo-Pacific region. This military intervention has sparked a huge debate on the Indian soil between the Political left and right.
This news was broken to the public by the Commander of the US seventh fleet himself which was thought as an act of unprovoked violation of the international norm and US hegemony. John Paul Jones, the destroyer that entered the Indian waters did say that it asserted navigation rights about 130nm west of Lakshadweep Island and then the US claimed that India has excessive maritime claims in the Indian oceans that are hampering the movement of its navy.
India was one of the early adopters of UNCLOS but the US has never accepted this convention in any form. The provision of the laws in UNCLOS doesn't authorize any other nation to carry out any operation in EEZ. Since Biden took over from Trump it has been seen that he has different policies and has put quite an emphasis on American leadership which is in sync with the rest of the democrats.
The policy that the Biden administration has adopted is that the US authority and international laws shall apply to all nations be it their ally like India or an enemy like China. In the year 2020, the United States challenged 28 different maritime claims by 19 different countries and it has been doing so for decades.
The United States has been doing it in the name of Freedom of Navigation that it signed in 1979. This is not the first time that the US government has done this; in the early nineties, the US government ordered its naval forces to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in areas near the waters of Sri Lanka. The Chinese have taken these claims a bit further, they assert that any government naval ships be it civilian or military need to seek prior permission even if it has to come close to its maritime boundaries.
The core issue with international maritime relations between various nations will always be ambiguous and will depend on their international law and their interest in that particular region. As Indo-Pacific becomes a region of extreme hostility with Chinese expansionism and the US and India trying to contain it, this will lead to more military interventions and face off in near future.
The signal that has been sent to both India and China is that The US will not go bend to its allies or its enemies and the international laws have to be respected by everyone. The US will look forward to its interest and more importantly will again establish itself as the sole nation that is capable of leading the world in any crisis.
This could also be seen as an advanced military drill that could benefit India by stating that the US has the back of its allies against any threatening activity by the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific region. It puts more pressure on China, the main ally of Pakistan and the US while assures India that the Biden administration will look to have more stability in the region.
The US has the world’s largest military and naval fleet as well that is something India would be well aware of and that is one reason that India did not blow up this issue and understood that it is not in any position to tackle the US navy by itself.
This policy has been one of the foundations of the US that it has used its military wherever other nations have tried to build their power and consolidate their authority. From the soviets who tried to dominate Cuba or the Chinese in the South China Sea.
The US today can conduct such operations around the world and even the second most powerful navy cannot stop them and as China acquired more weapons and increases its military strength the US example could well provide it with an opportunity to stir up trouble along the Indian coast, on the pretext of challenging our so-called “excessive maritime claims'' and both India as well as China would keep a close eye on US position in this region.