The unauthorised passage of the US navy ship, USS John Paul Jones, through India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) created a controversy which was easily avoidable. While there is a difference in opinion between the two countries on multiple issues, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) being just one, what was more concerning was the manner in which it was projected by the US. The US projected the incident as if to prove that it possesses the right to do as it pleases, and India will have to grin and bear it. For a supposed ally such an action followed by a blunt statement indicates scant regard for sensitivities.
The statement by the US 7th Fleet read, “(The US ship) 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.” It added its actions were consistent with international law. Rubbing salt, the statement said: “(It) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims.” India was irked more by the publicity accorded to the incident than the incident itself.
There have been other disagreements between the two nations – trade, human rights and threat of sanctions under CAATSA on India’s proposed procurement of S-400 missile systems from Russia, being the main. While trade talks are on, the use of CAATSA on procurement of the S- 400 remains a sticking point. The Indian contention that discussions for procuring the weapon systems were initiated before CAATSA was announced has not cut much ice with Washington. The US has placed some sanctions on Turkey, while claiming that the weapon system has yet to be inducted into the Indian forces. Strategists in the US have been warning their government that any attempt to sanction India will harm QUAD as also close US-India ties.
The fact remains that it was the US that has been pursuing India for enhancing levels of the QUAD, which India was hesitant about in deference to China. After the intrusion in Ladakh, India changed its stance. The QUAD has grown substantially in recent months. It is now challenging China, not just in the military sphere but also in economic and vaccine diplomacy. India remains a key player in the grouping as it alone possesses the production capability to challenge Chinese vaccine diplomacy, the current focus of the QUAD.
Russia as a major adversary of the US has now been relegated below China. Major threats from Russia remain in cyberspace and in Ukraine. There are no major military threats to Europe. With a shrunk economy, Russia is currently aligned with China as it needs Chinese investments and support to determine its own global space. It therefore sings the Chinese tune.
SE Asia refuses to support the QUAD nor does it challenge Chinese power, despite most nations having disagreements with China on their outlying islands in the South China Sea. Close US allies in the region Philippines and South Korea have yet to endorse QUAD. Evidently, the Indo- Pacific, where the US is now seeking to project power, is clearly divided between the US and China. Multipolarity has ceased to exist. The US alone does not possess the power to challenge China and needs allies. Its strongest ally is India.
India, apart from stalling the Chinese in Ladakh, is the only military power capable of challenging Chinese offensive designs. The fact that China was compelled to pull back in parts of Ladakh, while talks continue for other friction points, indicates that India possesses requisite military power. India and the US amongst current QUAD members have interests in the Indian Ocean, while Australia’s area of concern is the South Pacific and Japan’s is the South China Sea. The concerns of China, repeated by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, during his recent visit, have been growing Indo- US collaboration and proximity.
The only nation which gloated after the USS John Paul Jones incident and sought to exploit it to damage USIndia relations was China. The Global Times stated, “Historical experience tells us that the US is a country which can turn its back on any ally, let alone India, to pursue national interests,” adding, “Under the banner of Freedom of navigation it is common for US warships to trespass into EEZ of other countries.” It further stated that within India there were calls for tougher actions against the US.
Displaying its military power against an ally is a cheap action which the US should have avoided. It has never undertaken similar operations against Canada or Australia, which have claimed large EEZs, on the pretext of existing security treaties. If the intention was to convey a message to China that it conducts similar operations against its own allies and hence these should not be taken seriously, then the US has done more damage than good. It has projected that it compares Chinese offensive actions to Indian claims on its EEZ.
If it was intended to display its naval might, then it was an ill-conceived intention. The Indian statement issued after the incident implied that the ship was monitored all through its transit; however, considering relations between the two nations, India maintained silence. It would have been a global embarrassment for both nations and the QUAD had Indian naval ships moved into the region to question the US warship and India would have released tapes of the conversation.
The subsequent watering down of the statement by the Pentagon did little to limit the damage. In a written comment, based on a query, the Pentagon mentioned that the US warship had “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Republic of Maldives by conducting innocent passage through its territorial seas, without requesting prior permission.” There was no mention of India or Freedom of Navigation Operations. However, the damage was done.
While relations between the two countries would transcend this incident, within India there would always be doubts on true US intentions and whether it can remain a trusted ally.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.