By Milind Kulshreshtha
The Indo-Pacific is evolving as an important region for global naval powers due to various strategic advantages and mostly directed towards limiting the growing aggressive influence of China. Most of the nations deploying the war fighting units in the Indo-Pacific have a direct interest in the region (like US, France, UK etc.) and wish to maintain a free, open, inclusive and a rule-based order for protecting their people, assets and other interests in the Region. The freedom of navigation and peaceful cooperative use of the seas is being promoted in the Indo-Pacific region.
India has a long coastline of about 7,500 Kms and this includes about 1,100 offshore islands. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of India is enormous and measures approximately 2.01 million sq km. Indian Navy’s role are responsible for the overall maritime security of India, which includes coastal security, Islands and the offshore units. Accordingly, Indian Navy has evolved the capability to achieve superiority in a limited Regional conflict and as a forward-deployed naval power over the years. As per the Naval tactics in place, for a forward deployment, Indian Navy has maintained two Aircraft Carrier based task forces for long range strike capabilities (though presently only INS Vikramaditya is operational due to various construction delays of Indigenous Aircraft Carrier).
In the present geopolitical scenario, India’s maritime role in the Indo-Pacific region has gained larger importance and collaborating either as part of QUAD or through bilateral or trilateral naval exercises is now a norm. However, recently an independent operation of a US Navy warship belonging to the 7th Fleet (which forms a part of US Indo-Pacific Command) was in the news for entering India’s EEZ to ‘assert’ navigational rights and freedom. It has been reported to have sailed approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands. As per US claim, this freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law and challenged India’s excessive maritime claims.
The region of Lakshadweep and Minicoy islands indicated in the US report is a well protected naval outpost, with a permanent presence of a Naval Detachment (NAVDET). These islands are considered to be strategic since they fall on the vital shipping lanes from the Indian mainland to the Persian Gulf. These Islands are instrumental in providing support to the anti-piracy operations and assisting the Indian Navy to carry out increased surveillance and improve security in the local region. A naval detachment at Minicoy has been operational for many decades and few years back a base depot, INS Dweeprakshak, was commissioned at Kavaratti and a radar station on Androth Island exists and multiple radar stations have been established in the region as part of the Coastal Surveillance Network. A Coast Guard Headquarter too exists on Kavaratti Island. Recently, CMS-01 Communication satellite was launched by ISRO to enhance the telecommunication services in the extended-C band frequency spectrum to Lakshadweep islands also.
US EEZ Viewpoint
The US Navy has maintained a highly potent and superior naval presence in the Indo-Pacific since World War II. The US Seventh Fleet at any given time has approx. 50-70 ships and submarines, 150 aircraft and about twenty thousand deputed on duty in the US Indo-Pacific Command and its area of operations of about 124 million sq. km. stretches from the International Date Line to the India/Pakistan border and from the Kuril Islands in the North to the Antarctic in the South. China, Russia, India, N Korea and Republic of Korea fall within its area and the US has a Mutual Defense Treaty Alliance with the Philippines, Australia, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Thailand.
While this is being seen as an India centered activity but recently in Feb 2021 a similar incident was reported by US Navy wherein 7th Fleets USS John S. McCain asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, which it claims is consistent with the international law. According to the report, this freedom of navigation (FONOPS) upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law and challenged the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. It also challenged China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands. The US Navy claims that unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea poses a threat to the freedom of the sea, navigation and free trade. It threatens the air-space operations and commerce resulting in a freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.
In this particular incident in the South China Sea, as per US, China, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and all three expect either permission or advance notice before a military vessel or warship undertakes an “innocent passage” through their territorial sea. As per US interpretation, under the international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States (including warships) has the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea and an unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is not allowed by the law. The US has openly challenged these restrictions imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and this incident was showcased to state that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions.
US Challenge to China
The US has also challenged China’s 1996 declaration of straight baselines surrounding the Paracel Islands. In naval terms, baseline is the reference line along the coast from which the seaward limits of EEZ are measured and the UN defines the normal baseline as the low-water line along the coast as marked on officially published charts. The US has reiterated that regardless of which claimant has sovereignty over the islands in the Paracel Islands, such straight baselines cannot lawfully be drawn around the Paracel Islands by them.
Importantly, US highlights that the international law does not permit any continental States (like China) to establish the baselines around the entire dispersed island groups and effectively, now China has claimed more internal waters, continental shelf, territorial sea or EEZ than entitled as per international law. By Naval operations US has demonstrated that such waters are beyond lawful claim by China as its territorial sea and China’s claimed straight baselines with reference to Paracel Islands are inconsistent with the international law. The US version is that all its activities are intended to be conducted within the guidelines of international law and it shall always demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate as per permissions under the international law, without being bothered about the location of excessive maritime claims or current events.
Protection of India’s EEZ
For India, monitoring of EEZ evolves as one of the first steps towards coastal security. While this incident was declared by the US Navy itself with intent to send a clear message on its global policies and interpretation of the International laws for the seas, but detecting such an activity by Chinese ships, submarines or trawlers is a critical task. The Chinese shall deploy its sea assets mainly for covert ISR missions and study the Indian waters for salinity, temperature variations etc. as these features play an important role in submarine warfare. Already, the presence of a large number of UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles) reported in the Indo-Pacific have been undertaking such sub-surface measurements.
Indian Navy has an enormous duty to perform in the vast oceans, where there are no physical lines demarcated and thousands of ships are under sail at any given time. Even though a close watch is maintained and challenges thrown by the Indian Navy from time to time, a robust coastal defence shall require more resources in terms of warships and maritime surveillance aircrafts like P-8Is.
Meanwhile, satellite based surveillance with use of small satellites shall play a crucial role for ISR(Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) activities. Small satellites placed in a Sun Synchronous Polar Orbit (SSPO) shall provide specialised data, especially with the optical and SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) payloads. ISRO is still working towards developing small satellites for military applications and the Small Satellite Launch Vehicles (SSLVs) is under trials. Presently, ISRO is launching various commercial small satellites onboard the heavy duty rockets like GSLV or PSLV.
While the activity of US warship in the Indian EEZ is being seen as a specific case against India, however, US Indo-Pacific Command has well highlighted its position on the case as a global stand taken by it.US categorically states that it challenges the excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant. The US also acknowledges that the international law of the sea (as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention) provides for certain rights and freedoms and other lawful uses of the sea to all nations. Thus, the international community has to preserve the freedom of the seas as it is critical for global security, stability and prosperity.
It also states that none of the members of the international community shall be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms. In any case, all lawyers are well aware that legal interpretation of the Laws is a debatable point, be it local courts or any International forum. Thus, as an alternative to solely looking at the issue of EEZ transgression from an Indian perspective, taking up the case for clarification with an assertion of India’s stand by MEA may be more fruitful as no military option exists here. Moreover, India shall do better by having its position clear on these sea Laws and regulations to effectively participate in QUAD or any bilateral or trilateral naval operations. Meanwhile, what is beyond any debate is that India needs to enhance its surveillance in the Indo-Pacific through space based assets, and may consider renting out some of the non-sensitive area surveillance to private Indian industries working in the space domain to encourage Atmanirbhar concept.
(The author is a C4I expert who has worked on the development of the indigenous Naval Combat Management (CMS) systems. He has a keen interest in Joint Warfare C4I solutions pertaining to Threat Assessment & Warfare modules, Multiplatform Multi-sensor Data Fusion (MPMSDF). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)