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In time of Quad, a new SOP, unusual statement set off disquiet in Delhi

There are several red faces in South Block over the statement that USS John Paul Jones had carried out a Freedom of Navigation operation, "inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent".

India and US were involved in a joint naval exercise, along with navies of Japan, France and Australia in the eastern Indian Ocean region, in the La Pérouse exercise between April 5 and April 7. (Source: Twitter/@USNavy)

A new Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) adopted by the US Navy to underline its freedom of navigation is behind the unusual public statement issued by the Seventh Fleet on its warship entering India’s Exclusive Economic Zone west of Lakshadweep Islands, The Indian Express has learnt.

There are several red faces in South Block over the statement that USS John Paul Jones had carried out a Freedom of Navigation operation, “inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent,” and the fact that the statement flags “India’s excessive maritime claims.”

It’s now left to diplomats from both sides to dial down the temperature, especially since both countries have developed close cooperation in the wake of the Naval exercises involving the Quad grouping.

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From the US perspective, the FONOP — Freedom of Navigation Operations — is “country-neutral”, and the US Navy carried them as it would have done in the South China Sea or any other maritime domain. It has also been issuing public statements to underline its freedom of navigation.

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But Delhi has been accommodative of these US FONOP operations and has, in the past, not challenged the movement of the US naval fleet. Also, the US’s conventional approach of listing these operations as part of its annual reports has been “taken note of” by South Block. But this time, it’s the specific “operation-wise statement” that has created disquiet in Delhi.

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The Indian establishment is particularly perturbed at the fact that it was caught unawares at the public statement made by the Seventh Fleet. It reached out to the US administration officials separately for clarification after the matter came to its attention.

By Friday afternoon, South Block and Pentagon were in touch with each other to dial down the diplomatic heat. “The damage has been done. This in no way affects the Quad and the level of our co-operation but now diplomats have to do their job given that this has created some trust deficit,” a South Block official said.

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