U.S. Navy Challenges Quad Partner India's 'Excessive' Claims at Sea, Met with 'Concerns'

The U.S. military sent a warship in defiance of maritime territorial claims of India, a fellow member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). New Delhi has objected to the action, as both countries emphasize a focus on geopolitics across Asia and its strategic oceans.

According to a statement by the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet released on Wednesday, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones "asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India's exclusive economic zone, without requesting India's prior consent, consistent with international law."

The Arabian Sea islands are located roughly 120 to 270 miles off the southwestern coast of mainland India. The 7th Fleet acknowledged that the maneuvers constituted a challenge to India's claims, as "India requires prior consent for military exercises or maneuvers in its exclusive economic zone or continental shelf, a claim inconsistent with international law," according to the statement.

The operation, known as a freedom of navigation operations (FONOP), "upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging India's excessive maritime claims," the 7th Fleet said.

U.S. warships have conducted similar operations challenging claims of other countries, including a record level of maneuvers defying the claims of China, under the banner of a "free and open Indo-Pacific," a vision backed by India, along with fellow Quad partners Australia and Japan.

"U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis," the 7th Fleet said. "All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows."

The 7th Fleet described such operations as "routine and regular" in nature, "as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future."

The statement emphasized that these operations are conducted globally.

"FONOPs," the 7th Fleet said, "are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements."

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs, however, issued a rebuttal Friday, reasserting its position.

"The Government of 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," the ministry said, "in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state."

The ministry asserted that the U.S. vessel had been under constant surveillance as it sailed between two strategic maritime chokepoints, and that New Delhi's position had been shared with Washington.

"The USS John Paul Jones was continuously monitored transiting from the Persian Gulf towards the Malacca Straits," the statement said. "We have conveyed our concerns regarding this passage through our EEZ to the Government of U.S.A through diplomatic channels."

uss, john, paul, jones, persian, gulf
Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones sails in formation during exercise Nautical Defender 21 in the Persian Gulf, January 24. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Aja Bleu Jackson/U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. 5th Fleet

The U.S. and India have differing interpretations of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a document ratified by New Delhi but not Washington, though the U.S. has considered it customary law.

The latest FONOP was the first to challenge India since the Pentagon's 2019 fiscal year. Two years earlier, then-U.S. President Donald Trump moved to reinvigorate the Quad format amid consultations with the three partner countries in November 2017, a move widely seen as part of the previous administration's efforts to tackle a perceived growing threat from China.

India, the only Quad member not a treaty ally of the U.S., went on to shore up defense and information-sharing ties with the Trump administration.

Since coming to office in January, President Joe Biden has embraced the Quad approach. He joined Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the first-ever leaders-level talks via virtual link last month.

Among the commitments made by the four powers at the time were "promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond," as well as to "support the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity."

The four have also held joint military exercises, eliciting some concerns from China, which has warned against the establishment of alliances targeting third-party nations in the region. On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian addressed a three-day series of exercises involving the Quad and France in the Indian Ocean's Bay of Bengal that coincided with the U.S. freedom of navigation operation in the Arabian Sea.

"China always holds that military cooperation between countries should be conducive to peace and stability in the region," Zhao said.

New Delhi is also the only Quad member to have physically clashed with Beijing in recent years. While Australia, Japan and the U.S. have also raised the alarm on what they view as China's aggressive moves in the region, Indian and Chinese troops clashed with makeshift weapons last year, killing up to 20 personnel from the former and four soldiers from the latter at a high-altitude border point on the Line of Actual Control, a contested boundary separating India-administered Ladakh and China-administered Aksai Chin.

The fatalities were the first to be incurred there in some 45 years. The two countries, who once went to war over border issues in 1962, have moved to deescalate since their latest clash and have held successive rounds of military and political talks to disengage from the area of contention.

But India has also conducted an increasing number of exercises in the South China Sea, a vast stretch of the Pacific Ocean where China has broad territorial claims of its own. Here, the U.S. has conducted frequent FONOPs and Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island conducted "a live-fire training exercise" in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, according to a tweet published Thursday by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

The U.S. also defied China directly on Wednesday by sending Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain through the Taiwan Strait, a nearby passage separating mainland China from Taiwan, a self-ruling island claimed by Beijing but backed informally by Washington.

This is a developing news story. More information will be added as it becomes available.