By Kashish Parpiani
Last week, the US Navy conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As per the US 7th Fleet’s press release, 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 statement even noted India’s policy of requiring prior notification to be “inconsistent with international law.” This led to India’s Ministry of External Affairs issuing a response: “We have conveyed our concerns regarding this passage through our EEZ to the Government of USA through diplomatic channels.”
In recent years, the US ramped up such operations — mostly against Chinese transgressions in the South China Sea, primarily under the Donald Trump administration’s policy of “strategic predictability, operational unpredictability.” Whereby, FONOPs were not construed “as noteworthy events, but more as a fact of life” to serve as a reminder of the US’ forward presence and commitment to freedom of navigation.
The Joe Biden administration’s continuity on the matter has been apparent with it often invoking the Trump administration’s lexicon (including in the aforementioned press release) on FONOPs demonstrating that “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
Trump’s focus on capacity-building
One may argue, another point of continuity was the recent US FONOP in India’s EEZ, since the Trump administration also oversaw a similar operation in 2019. However, unlike the recent case, the Trump administration did not publicise the same, as it primarily sought to cultivate gains for its ‘Buy American’ policy on increasing US arms exports, by underscoring US support for India’s rise as the preeminent security provider in the Indian Ocean.
In capitalising India’s evolving Southward/Navy-based security calculus, the Trump administration cultivated a focus on India’s maritime surveillance capability in US-India defence trade. This was apparent with the Trump administration yielding to India’s long-standing requests for specific platforms like the MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, and offering the sale of the Sea Guardian UAS by overturning the Obama-era freeze on India’s purchase of unmanned systems.
Furthermore, the Trump administration cleared the sale of more P-8 maritime surveillance aircrafts to India, adopted a policy of front-loading clearances for ancillary equipment for India’s existing fleet of P-8 aircraft, and cleared India’s procurement of MK 45 5 inch/62 calibre anti-surface naval guns.
Under the broader Indo-Pacific strategy, the policy objective of this focus on India’s maritime surveillance capability was to assist New Delhi’s efforts to seize the mantle of providing maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean, via actions like its establishment of the Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR).
Emergent limitations and challenges for US-India defence ties
Biden is expected to practice continuity on this US support for India’s role in the Indian Ocean. After all, the same is at the core of the US’s aim of having its Navy focus its resources and assets in the Western Pacific, without getting overtly occupied in the Indian Ocean subregion of the Indo-Pacific. Hence, at a recent Congressional hearing, Adm. Philip Davidson (Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command) signalled continuity by welcoming New Delhi’s establishment of the IFC-IOR.
However, on the other critical component of such US support i.e. American military hardware underpinning India’s efforts (e.g. India’s fleet of US-made P-8 aircraft serves as the backbone of IFC-IOR’s operations) questions remain over US continuity on the Trump precedent of US-India defence trade’s focus on India’s maritime surveillance capability.
In line with pre-election analyses that warned against undue Congressional intervention into US-India defence ties on account of Democrats’ apprehensions over India’s civil-liberties record, Sen. Robert Menendez (Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee) urged US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to raise the “deteriorating situation of democracy” during his recent visit to New Delhi. Furthermore, the Biden administration has not ruled out the imposition of secondary sanctions on India, over its purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia. These challenges could impede the recent pace of the US’ clearance of arms and export designations for India.
In addition, one cannot discount limitations posed by India’s fiscal constraints on future defence procurements and altered preferences — such as India’s possible return to its traditional focus on a continental Northward/Army-centric calculus in view of recent India-China border tensions.
Biden’s focus on operational and policy-level synergies
With these looming challenges and limitations, the Biden administration seems to be increasing its focus on consolidating operational and policy-level synergies with India.
Focus on the former has been apparent with back-to-back interoperability engagements. The February 2021 iteration of the Yudh Abhyas exercise between Indian and American armies witnessed participation from the Indian Air Force’s US-made CH 47 Chinook helicopters and AH- 64E Apache Attack Helicopters, which were inducted in the final years of the Trump administration. This was followed by Secretary Austin’s March visit to India, which primarily focused on “expanding military-to-military engagement across services, information sharing, cooperation in emerging sectors of defense, and mutual logistics support.” Following which, India and the US conducted the Joint Special Forces Exercise Vajra Prahar, to “improve interoperability between the Special Forces of both nations” by engaging in the sharing of best practices on mission planning.
Similarly, the Biden administration seems to be looking for greater synergy on the policy level, in contrast with Trump’s approach of at times having high momentum on defence trade precede policy convergences between India and the US.
During his visit, Secretary Austin noted India’s commitment to a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific — “Prime Minister Modi has stated that India stands for freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, unimpeded, lawful commerce, and inherence to international law.” However, on this aspect, there have been some divergences between India and the US, like New Delhi’s disagreement with Washington’s expansive interpretation of freedoms enjoyed by foreign vessels in littoral spaces.
However, despite India merely mandating prior notification (relative to China’s requirement of prior permission) by foreign warships entering its territorial waters or EEZ under innocent passage, the divergence renders New Delhi’s position to broadly correspond with Beijing’s position. Hence, with the publicised US FONOP in India’s EEZ, the Biden administration sought to hold India to account on its commitment to a common vision for the Indo-Pacific, and possibly push for deliberations on better aligning Indian and American conceptions of a “rules-based order” in the region.
In addition, in context of the US’s policy towards China, the FONOP in India’s EEZ may also be viewed as the Biden administration’s effort to underscore that the Indo-Pacific strategy is not aimed at any one particular country. While Trump officials also often expressed such a non-exclusionary conception of the Indo-Pacific — for instance, US Deputy NSA Matthew Pottinger’s remarks at Raisina Dialogue 2020 — it was no secret that the Indo-Pacific was seen as a political shibboleth within US policy circles and amongst US partners in the region to “identify who among them was working in service of a larger project of zero-sum competition with China.”
Whereas, the Biden administration seems to have undermined the value of this expedient understanding — in terms of helping consolidate a domestic bipartisan consensus on confronting China and rallying like-minded nations behind the US in the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration jettisoning this Trump precedent was recently apparent in Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby’s rationale for US FONOPS: “We tend to talk about it in regards to China and their excessive maritime claims but it isn’t all just about China, it’s something we do not against something but for something and we do it all around the world.”
Hence, apart from indicating a shift in US priorities for US-India defence ties, the US FONOP in India’s EEZ has only furthered existing concerns over Biden angling for a reset in US-China ties.
-The article is inferred from Observer Research Foundation portal https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/la-perouse-quad-naval-exercise-and-indias-strategic-partnership-with-france/
-The writer is Fellow at ORF’s Mumbai centre. His interests include US-India bilateral ties, US grand strategy, and US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda