The subtle message conveyed in the USS John Paul Jones incident was that the US now considers India as a rival. Obviously, a re-calibration of India’s foreign policy is required; after abandoning its special relationship with Russia, India has to rethink its strategy

A statement by the US Seventh Fleet Commander that the destroyer USS John Paul Jones had asserted its navigational rights and freedoms by sailing 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent, created headlines the world over. For good measure the statement added: “This Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims…We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

A weak protest by the Ministry of External Affairs was brushed aside by the Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, who confirmed the USS John Paul Jones’ incursion into India’s exclusive economic zone. Justifying the transgression, Kirby added: “Again, we continue to maintain the right, indeed the responsibility, to fly, sail, and operate in accordance with international law.”

Understandably, the Indian Government has downplayed this incident but experts are hard put to explain the reason behind the belligerence of the US ~ sailing a warship in a friendly country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and later publicising and justifying the incursion.

Taking a purely legalistic view, Article 58 of the United Nations Convention on Laws of Sea (UNCLOS) authorises coastal states to make laws regarding its EEZ. India has enacted the Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and Other Maritime Zones Act, 1976, according to which, “all foreign ships (other than warships including submarines and other underwater vehicles) shall enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial waters.” However, the US has not ratified UNCLOS and has proposed an alternative theory of “rules-based international order.”

The US Department of Defence releases a Freedom of Navigation (FON) Report annually, identifying the broad range of excessive maritime claims that were challenged by the US Government, by intrusion of its warships. FON Reports of recent years indicate that the US had often challenged India’s EEZ claims in the past also, but a public statement of this kind was never made earlier. The Ministry of External Affairs’ response to the Seventh Fleet Commander’s statement indicates that the Indian Navy was closely following the passage of the USS John Paul Jones through Indian waters. However, later developments caught the Government of India off-guard, which never expected its recent ally to thumb its nose at us.

For the record, along with Japan and Australia both India and the US are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) since 2007. The importance of Quad for the US can be gauged from the fact that President Biden hosted a virtual summit of the Quad on 12 March, soon after his inauguration. Later on, navies of France and Quad countries conducted the sophisticated La PĂ©rouse multilateral naval exercise in the eastern Indian Ocean between 5 and 7 April ~ the time when the USS John Paul Jones was sneaking into the Indian EEZ.

Moreover, only recently the US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, and the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J Austin had visited India where, amongst other platitudes, Austin had reiterated a “commitment towards strengthening the bilateral defence relations between the two countries.” China reacted with undisguised glee at India’s discomfiture. Accusing India of being a hegemon in the Indian Ocean, a news item in Global Times, alleged that of late, India had become tolerant towards US Naval operations only to cope with China’s rise. The article concluded that “India needs to re-evaluate its ties with the US, have a clearer awareness of this country (US) and avoid any illusion toward this country (US).”

Sputnik International, a Russian State newspaper, took a dig at India by reproducing a highly objectionable tweet by Subramanian Swamy implying that India was now neither fish nor fowl ~ neither with Russia nor with the US. Charitably interpreted, the USS John Paul Jones incident is a warning to China that the US would mount Freedom of Navigation Operations against all countries ~ friend or foe. The message to the world at large is that the US has the might to enforce its hegemony on the entire world. Coincidentally, or otherwise, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew directly to Islamabad from Delhi, after staying in Delhi for less than 24 hours. While in Delhi on 6 April, Lavrov met his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar but not Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was campaigning in West Bengal.

In stark contrast to his reception in India, in Pakistan Lavrov was received personally at the airport by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Later on, Lavrov met Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. During the visit, Lavrov expressed Russia’s readiness to supply special military equipment to Pakistan, to strengthen its counterterrorism capabilities. This sequence of events, seen in the perspective of the Seventh Fleet’s fleeting visit to the Bay of Bengal in December 1971, in the aftermath of Indo-Pak hostilities, when the US Navy had to beat an ignominious retreat after protests from India and the erstwhile USSR, probably apprised the US of the current state of Indo-Russian relations, emboldening it to embark on the USS John Paul Jones misadventure.

Meanwhile, last month the US held a high-level meeting with China in Anchorage (Alaska) where the US was represented by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and China by Chinese Communist Party Politburo Member Yang Jiechi and State Councillor Wang Yi. Notably, the Chinese refused to be cowed down by US posturing, reiterating inter alia their rejection of the US Freedom of Navigation doctrine. In what may be a development related to current events, after speedily completing withdrawal of its troops from Pangong Tso in East Ladakh, China seems to be dragging its feet on moving back from Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang.

Despite sweet words, the Biden administration has not proved any better for India than the Trump Presidency. The US has threatened to levy additional tariffs up to 25 per cent on around 40 Indian products including shrimps, basmati rice, gold and silver items in retaliation against the Equalisation Levy or Digital Services Tax, imposed by India on non-resident e-commerce operators. To attract investment in manufacturing, India had lowered the income-tax rate to 15 percent for newly established manufacturing companies. This concession would be neutralised, once the Biden Administration operationalises its new US income tax regime whereby American MNCs would have to pay additional US tax, if they are not paying at least 28 per cent income tax abroad.

The subtle message conveyed in the USS John Paul Jones incident was that the US now considers India as a rival. Obviously, a re-calibration of India’s foreign policy is required; after abandoning its special relationship with Russia, India has to rethink its strategy. We may start by normalising our relations with arch enemy Pakistan, even at some cost to ourselves. Differences with Pakistan enable other countries to hyphenate India and Pakistan. Our Government willingly plays along in this game, because we can get the better of Pakistan in every field, which is applauded by the domestic audience. We should avoid devaluing our position unnecessarily, that is now on par with that of great powers like China, Russia and the US.

Finally, we have to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket by getting too closely aligned to the US, because the US has a history of ditching all friends, except their proxies, UK and Israel. We should not blindly trust a country whose foreign policy has been summarised by its foreign policy architect, the former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, in the following words: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”