USS John Paul Jones incident: Navigating through not so troubled waters

USS John Paul Jones
USS John Paul Jones; photo credit: U.S. Navy

The FONOP operation should not be read as anything more than a minor irritant between two friendly nations, writes columnist Frank F. Islam.

On April 7, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John F. Kerry met with Prime Minister Modi in Delhi to discuss collaboration between the two countries on one of the Biden administration’s signature issues. The meeting, the highest level engagement between the two countries to date on the issue, took place a little more than two weeks before President Joe Biden’s scheduled April 22 -23 virtual summit on climate change.

However, it was not the high-level bilateral event — during which the prime minister reaffirmed India’s commitment to meet climate change goals — that attracted the most headlines in subsequent days. Rather it was a unilateral event that took place more than 1,200 miles to the southwest in the Arabian Sea that became the talk of the town.

The same day Kerry, a former Senator, Secretary of State and a good friend of India, met with Modi, the US Navy 7th fleet issued a press release disclosing a routine operation by its guided missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones. The ship “asserted navigational rights and freedoms” inside “India’s exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) near Lakshadweep, “without requesting India’s prior consent, consistent with international law,” the statement said.

Some analysts in India reacted as though the United States had declared war on India, and accused Washington of destroying the spirit of Quad, the four-nation Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among the U.S., India, Japan and Australia, whose summit President Biden had hosted last month.

In contrast, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reacted in a markedly composed manner. It reiterated India’s position that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which the U.S. Navy conducted “freedom of navigation operation,” does “not authorize other States to carry out in the Exclusive Economic Zone and on the continental shelf, military exercises or maneuvers, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state.”

New Delhi conveyed its concerns over the passage of USS John Paul Jones through its EEZ to Washington “through diplomatic channels,” according to the MEA press release.

There is no question that the United States and India are not on the same page on the question of the exclusive economic zone. In fact, the U.S. is not on the same page with even its military allies such as South Korea and the Philippines.

India, like South Korea and the Philippines, maintains that for other countries to do military exercises or maneuvers in its EEZ, they require permission. The United States argues that such permissions are not required. Washington opposes what it calls “excessive maritime claims,” saying that international law allows lawful uses of the seas.

Read more columns by Frank F. Islam

It is routine for US Naval ships to conduct Freedom of Operations Naval Program (FONOP)  operations in the Indo-Pacific and other oceans. In fact, on the same day it sailed through India’s EEZ, USS John Paul Jones passed though the territorial sea of the Maldives. The two archipelagos are separated by roughly 430 miles. Another 7th Fleet destroyer, USS John S. McCain transited through the Taiwan Straits in a similar manner. Both these FONOP operations were announced in similar press releases.

A week prior to that, another U.S. Naval cargo ship Charles Drew conducted similar operations near Kuk-To Island, challenging South Korea’s claim. Likewise, since last November, different 7th Fleet ships have asserted navigational rights in the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, challenging the rights of China, Philippines and Vietnam, and Peter the Great Bay in the Sea of Japan, countering Russia’s exclusivity claim.

In the aftermath of all these operations, countries against which navigational rights were asserted did not escalate the matter. So it is not wise to read too much into such operations. As the 7th Fleet press release states, “FONOPs are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

New Delhi has always been sensitive about the presence of other military powers in the Indian Ocean. In the 1970s, when the United States established a base in Diego Garcia, which is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, India opposed it forcefully, arguing that Indian Ocean should be kept as a “Zone of Peace.” But over the years, with the Chinese increasing its naval presence in the region, India has come to accept it.

The USS John Paul Jones incident should not be read as anything more than a minor irritant between two friendly nations. It will not affect the trajectory of the ties.

Covid-19 may have considerably slowed down the air traffic between India and the United States. But it has not affected bilateral engagements between the two countries at all. In fact, in the first 12 weeks of the Biden administration, there have been an unprecedented number of engagements.

March was especially busy month for the relations. Besides the Quad summit, where Prime Minister Modi and President Biden spoke, it also saw a successful visit to New Delhi by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. In March, the two countries also agreed to re-establish their Homeland Security Dialogue to discuss key issues such as cybersecurity, emerging technology and violent extremism. Then came the Kerry visit.

These high-level engagements appear to have set the tone for a very positive direction for the bilateral ties between India and the United States under Prime Minister Modi and President Biden.

Possibly the reason, some analysts overreacted to the USS John Paul Jones’s FONOP was because it came “against the run of play” — to borrow a sports metaphor.  Truth be told, to put it in maritime terms, the U.S.S. John Paul Jones was navigating through not so troubled waters.

(Frank F. Islam is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington, DC.)

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