The outrage over US Navy’s intrusion in India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near Lakshadweep last week was decades too late

US warships have been conducting “operational assertion”, as these intrusive sail-throughs are called, to express America’s refusal to recognise certain maritime claims by India, at least since 1985, under a freedom of navigation program it launched in 1979, according to defence department reports.

India requires prior notice from foreign warships to enter its territorial sea, which extends its sovereignty 12 nautical miles from the baseline and requires prior permission for military exercises and manoeuvres in its exclusive economic zone, which extends it exclusive rights to economic resources for 200 nautical miles as per international maritime norms.

The 7th Fleet, which is the largest in US Navy with an area of responsibility in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans, sparked outrage in India last week with a statement saying one of its warships, USS John Paul Jones, “asserted navigational rights and freedoms” about 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep islands.

The ship was well inside India’s EEZ and was required by India to obtain prior permission, which the US did not.

The external affairs ministry said in a statement India’s “stated position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 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”.

The US says it does not recognise India’s claims pertaining to both territorial sea jurisdiction and the EEZ. And it conducted “operational assertions” in India’s territorial sea, challenging India’s claims, for the first time in 1985, and continued through to 1989, and then from 1991 through 1994, and then in 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2007, and 2011, according to the maritime claims reference manual issued by the defence department’s representative for ocean policy affairs.

Disregarding India’s requirement of prior notice for military exercises in its EEZ, the report said the US conducted “operational assertions” in 1999, 2001, and from 2008 through to 2017 and then in 2019 - multiple times a year in many of them - according to US defence department reports.

No specific reason or context was mentioned for any of these operational assertions individually. They were all covered by a generic “US does not recognise this claim”.

The US has been conducting these operational assertions under the US Freedom of Navigation (FON) Programme launched in 1979 to “safeguard lawful commerce and the global mobility of US forces”, said the annual freedom of navigation report that the Pentagon sent to the Congress in 2020.

The outrage, some experts argued, was not so much about the intrusion as it was about the aggressive tone of the 7th Fleet. “US pointedly says its navy entered India’s EEZ, noted India requires prior consent but not sought, and termed India’s excessive maritime claims as contrary to international law,” former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal noted in a tweet. “Why aggressive tone now when issue old and not aired publicly? Result: Indian official reaction and tweet outpourings.”

The US defines “excessive maritime claims” as “attempts by coastal states to unlawfully restrict the freedom of navigation, overflight and other lawful uses of the sea. These claims are made through laws, regulations or other pronouncements that are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the law of the sea convention. If left unchallenged, excessive maritime claims could infringe the freedom of the seas entitled to all nations”.