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FONOPs furore raises tough questions on price to be paid for US-India partnership against China

Last week, 'USS John Paul Jones' ventured into India's Exclusive Economic Zone, triggering questions like how are maritime boundaries drawn, who gets to decide the laws that govern the seas and who is to enforce them?

April 17, 2021 / 07:23 AM IST
A 2001 photo of 'USS John Paul Jones', the US Navy's guided missile destroyer that last week transited through the seas off Lakshadweep. Image credit: Fred Greaves/Reuters.

A 2001 photo of 'USS John Paul Jones', the US Navy's guided missile destroyer that last week transited through the seas off Lakshadweep. Image credit: Fred Greaves/Reuters.

The trumpet blew from the admiral’s flagship; the great fleet of Yusuf Hamid, commander of Imperial Turkey’s forces in the Indian Ocean, heeled west, and disappeared into the darkness. For two months, travellers along the coast had seen the flickering fire from the great siege cannon. The Portuguese defenders of the citadel of Diu had been reduced—but the Turks had also reached breaking point. Georgius Huszthius—a one-time student at Hungary’s University of Pécs, whose extraordinary life led from a village of Croatia to service in the Turkish fleet—recorded that their fresh water was spent, their meat had rotted, and their bread was full of worms.

Faced with the arrival of superior Portuguese naval forces and lacking support from Gujarat’s feudal lords, Hamid Bey realised his forces had no hope of victory: on the morning of November 2, 1538, Georgius Huszthius was ordered to signal retreat. From the 1540s on, Portugal’s system of cartazes, licences issued to merchant ships traversing India’s western coast for a fee, solidified. The revenues, historian Sohinee Basak has recorded, helped make Portuguese colonial power self-financing.

Last week, as the United States Navy’s guided missile destroyer transited through the seas off Lakshadweep—an act designed to challenge Indian maritime law—the questions that arose during the long colonial struggle to control Asia’s oceans were once again resurrected. How are maritime boundaries to be drawn? Who is to decide the laws that govern the seas? Who is to enforce them?

In some senses, the furore around the is the result of a media that hasn’t been paying attention: There’s in fact nothing new about United States Navy Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPs, in Indian waters. Ever since the 1990s, the United States Department of Defense has regularly published information on FONOPs; in recent years, the United States Navy has publicised these patrols on its website.