FONOPs: A Manual for the Uninitiated


US Navy ‘FONOPs’ in India’s ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’ has triggered a controversy recently. What is so stormy about the Freedom of Navigation Operations or FONOPs? Here’s your navigational guide.

India met with an unusual statement from the US on April 9. The 7th Fleet of that country’s Navy had an announcement regarding one of its warships that went thus:

“USS John Paul Jones (it) asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands. This freedom of navigation operation (“FONOP”) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims.”

To say the least, there was a bit of confusion regarding the statement among the general public. What exactly did it mean? Is this a usual practice? 

FONOP versus Innocent Passage 

In maritime parlance, an Innocent Passage is referred to as the right of a vessel to pass through the territorial waters of a foreign state. 

A Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP), on the other hand, is an operational challenge against excessive maritime claims. In fact, the US regularly conducts FONOPs across the globe. 

The most obvious difference between an innocent passage and a FONOP is that the former acknowledges the territorial claims of the country involved, whereas the latter is an open challenge to such territorial claims. 

Crucially, a vessel performing an innocent passage via a country’s waters notifies that country about the passage, deactivates its weapons systems and radar, avoids any manner of survey or exercise in the area, and practically zips out of that space as swiftly as possible. A FONOP, on the other hand, is a power display that does not include any of the above. 

So when the US Navy announced that it had conducted a FONOP off Lakshadweep, it was by no means something that could be shrugged off. 

Ouch. How did MEA respond?

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) responded to the US statement by saying that India’s position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is that it “does not authorise other States to carry out in the EEZ 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.”

It also said that the US’s Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer was “continuously monitored” as it passed from the Persian Gulf towards the Malacca Straits. The matter of passage through India’s EEZ was also raised with the US government “through diplomatic channels.”

To be clear, a country’s EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone extends till 200 nautical miles (370km) off its coast. The country claims this zone as its own and exercises exclusive fishing rights here, among other things. 

Tharoor’s take 

Meanwhile Congress MP and former international diplomat Shashi Tharoor acknowledged the anger felt by India after the US publicised its FONOP but pointed out that “…there is nothing in UNCLOS (the Law of the Sea) that supports India’s stand on freedom of navigation through the EEZ”. Head here for a mini analysis of the situation by Tharoor.

A little flashback

That the US action came on the heels of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to India also deserves consideration given that Delhi’s S-400 missile deal with Moscow continues to be a sore point with the US. Lavrov had arrived to lay the groundwork for the India-Russia annual summit slated to take place later this year.    

The US, on its part, regularly conducts FONOPs around Asia – in countries including China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailan, South Korea, North Korea, Japan. The practice, however, does not seem to extend to its major partners like Canada or Australia. Nor is it usual to actually put out a public statement regarding such an action, like it recently did with regard to India. 

The twist in the tale is the fact that the US has never ratified the UNCLOS – the very law it claims to be upholding while exercising its  freedom of navigation. India had ratified UNCLOS in 1995. 

India’s Maritime Zones Act too requires foreign warships to obtain a nod before passing through the country’s waters even if it is an innocent passage. 

China rocks the boat

Chinese daily Global Times, meanwhile, did not squander the opportunity to term the latest FONOP a “humiliation” to India and a US warning to the Modi government not to cosy up too much with Russia. It also put the spotlight on alleged cracks in the Quad grouping comprising India, US, Japan and Australia, which had just wrapped up a naval exercise along with France in the first week of March in the Bay of Bengal.

Chinese analyst Xie Chao even went to the extent of saying, “The US Navy’s intrusion… will strengthen India’s strategic doubt toward the US and make it believe that its firm refusal to let Quad evolve into a NATO-like military alliance in Asia is a wise choice.”

Keeping trouble at bay  

After the issue blew up, the US even attempted a de-escalation of sorts on April 11, terming the incident an innocent passage. 

It wasn’t the FONOP itself that triggered India, but rather how the US chose to blow its horn about the matter, given that India-US bonhomie is vital to deal with the larger issue at hand – curtailing China’s increasing maritime belligerence in the South China Sea.  

Indeed, the most important FONOPs of late have happened in the South China Sea in what is seen as a US attempt to challenge Beijing’s louder claims in that region. 

Like in the past, more FONOPs will happen in our waters in future too. As Tharoor said, India’s best bet is perhaps to deal with the issue diplomatically so that we wouldn’t completely be at sea the next time around. 

Also Read: A Guide to Deep Sea Earthquake Detectors

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