It’s bad enough that in this transactional world order, the mores of diplomacy are hinged on defence deals. Worse still, we have to wait with bated breath for Donald Trump to make up his mind. “India is going to find out, aren’t they?’’ Trump indicated ominously, with an air of one who ordains the future, “Sooner than you think.’’
The wait won’t be too long, small mercies! India would know soon whether the S-400 Triumf advanced air defence missile deal it signed with Russia would attract sanctions under CAATSA—a US federal law which expands as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. It seeks to impose sanctions on anyone trying to do business with North Korea, Iran and Russia. In Russia’s case, it’s not just oil and gas but also defence deals. That’s “intended to wean countries off Russian equipment”, a White House spokesperson explained helpfully, underlining that the scope of presidential waiver “is narrow” and limited to spare parts acquisition.
The initial sound bites from the US embassy in New Delhi were more nuanced and less threatening, the tone appreciative of India’s military needs. That India would be going ahead with the S-400 deal was flagged during the 2+2 Dialogue our external affairs and defence ministers had with their US counterparts. The NSA is also said to have held talks in Washington to ensure the much-needed surface-to-air missile deal goes through without attracting CAATSA’s eyes. This was prior to India signing COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) with the US.
But in the current US administration no one seems to know President Trump’s mind. New Delhi, while going through the motions of seeking concurrence, has kept sovereign national interest paramount—whether on oil imports from Iran or S-400. The same missile system has already been acquired by China. New Delhi has displayed a latent confidence in its belief that Washington can ill-afford to open another front when it’s already battling it out with Beijing. The old non-aligned stance had its uses.