Freedom of Navigation Operations

The US Navy has publicly declared it conducted “freedom of navigation operations” in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) near Lakshadweep recently, without deliberately seeking India’s prior consent. The exercise was carried out to challenge India’s excessive maritime claims.

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

Indian Government Statement

India’s domestic laws hold any country carrying out military maneuvers in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) must provide prior notification. While a country has full sovereignty over its territorial waters, which up to 12 nautical miles from the baseline, it only has special rights in exploration and use of marine resources in its EEZ, which stretches up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline.

India replied that other states are not allowed to conduct military exercise and manoeuvres in the EEZ without the consent of coastal states (i.e., India, in this case).

What’s the concern now?

This is not the first time for the US conducting FONOP. The US — which has not ratified the UNCLOS unlike India, China and many other countries — does regularly conduct FONOPs in the contentious South China Sea to challenge China’s aggressive territorial claims as well as in other areas including the Indian Ocean Region.

However, the “tone and tenor of the aggressive public declaration” of FONOPs in India’s EEZ, especially when the US is seeking India’s closer cooperation through the Quad and other mechanisms to foster “credible deterrence” against China in the Indo-Pacific, raised the hackles of the Indian security architecture. 

The US said, India’s requirement of prior consent is inconsistent with international laws and the “freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs)”. 

What is FONOP?

Freedom of Navigation Operations involves passages conducted by the US Navy through waters claimed by coastal nations as their exclusive territory. FONOP is exercised by sailing through all areas of the sea permitted under UNCLOS.

  • 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”.
  • These “assertions communicate that the United States does not agree to the excessive maritime claims of other nations, and thus prevents those claims from becoming accepted in international law”.

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