With the Russian announcement that deliveries of its advanced S-400 surface-to-air anti-aircraft defence system to India are to begin shortly, the die has been cast for a major challenge to India-US bilateral ties. The S-400 shipments will arrive before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India. US President Joe Biden’s administration has to now decide whether or not to impose sanctions on India under the American domestic legislation that goes by the acronym CAATSA or “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act”. This law was an outcome of partisan American domestic politics and the growing downslide in ties between the US and Russia, and also with Iran and North Korea.
The India-Russia deal for five S-400 systems worth around $5.5 billion had elicited a warning from the Trump administration that New Delhi would attract sanctions under CAATSA. India has always rejected jurisdiction of a third country’s domestic law and predictably, ignored the American warning. India had honed in on the S-400 because China too had acquired the same system, the most advanced in this category of anti-aircraft defence systems. China has deployed a few S-400 systems in Tibet. Moreover, India has had a long-term defence relationship with Russia, though she has diversified her foreign defence procurement in the last two decades, including buying around $20 billion worth of defence equipment from the US. India’s decision to acquire the S-400 was a prescient one, in the light of bloody clashes between Indian and Chinese forces along the LAC in Ladakh and the subsequent aggressive military build-up by China along it.
One aspect of CAATSA is that it targets countries that buy major defence systems from Russia. America wanted to punish Russia for the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the alleged interference in the American presidential election in 2016. CAATSA seeks to undermine Russia’s defence and intelligence sectors and deny Moscow her share of the international military hardware market. The US has targeted Russia’s defence exports and the oil and gas sectors because together, they contribute a major chunk to that nation’s exports.
Turkey, a NATO ally, has come under CAATSA sanctions for the purchase of the S-400 system. These sanctions include denials of export licences, loans and credits by American financial institutions to the importing Turkish entity and visa to its personnel and blocking of their assets in the US. America also blocked sale of the fifth generation fighter aircraft for which Turkey had made advance payment. Turkey’s rocky relationship with the US was triggered by the failed military coup in 2016 against President Erdogan that Ankara blamed on Washington and the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen who lives in exile in America. Turkey has moved closer to Russia and China and is planning to acquire more S-400 systems.
India is no Turkey and Washington has to do a deep think about imposing sanctions. The State Department should re-read its old files on its non-proliferation strategy that it used unsuccessfully to try and coerce India to give up the nuclear weapons option. The dramatic turnaround came during President George Bush’s administration, when the US and India entered into agreements to recognise New Delhi as a nuclear weapons power. Coercion through sanctions will not work against New Delhi. The India-US nuclear deal was a result of a fait accompli and the recognition of a rising China that was seeking hegemony in Asia. Today, China is seeking global hegemony. It has made it clear that it seeks to replace the US as the global hegemon. The formation of the Quad, AUKUS and Malabar exercises are all geared to signal to China the dangers of her hegemonic overreach. The geostrategic landscape has changed irrevocably and India will play a pivotal role in the coming decades to maintain the strategic balance in Asia.
During the Cold War, the US was a regular supplier of military hardware to Pakistan. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and later, after 9/11, Pakistan continued to receive billions in financial and military aid from the US. Even after the Taliban was driven out, America’s aid kept flowing. US administrations provided waiver after waiver from sanctions to shield Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and China’s assistance to Islamabad’s nuclear and missile programmes. The US conveniently coined the term “grandfathering” when the issuing of missile technology by China to Pakistan came under scrutiny because of the clear breach of MTCR obligations. While the US was pursuing its national interests, it is undeniable that a collateral interest was to keep India in check because of her close ties with the USSR and later Russia. Pakistan’s role as a proxy of the US and now of China has India as the target.
Some US senators have urged the administration to opt for a waiver, using provisions in CAATSA. While the US claims that no decision has been taken, some senior former officials have raised the issue of American technology transfers to India being compromised, undermining interoperability, and the S-400 as a target for Chinese cyberwarfare. There is, however, acknowledgement that India does need such advanced air defence systems in view of the security threats from the China-Pakistan axis. Basically, the US wants to grab a major share of the Indian defence hardware market. As for leakage of sensitive American military technology, the major source has been Pakistan, a non-NATO ally, and China the beneficiary.
CAATSA sanctions, if applied, will be against the current strategic rationale. Imposition of sanctions will dampen chances of defence cooperation gaining further traction. There is already an entrenched belief that Russia is a far more reliable partner than the US and there is no overhang of domestic legislation, which is an American tool for coercion. In the Indian establishment, those who have always regarded the US as an unreliable partner and believe that the Anglo-American alliance has been partial to Pakistan will gain added strength. But above all, CAATSA sanctions, if applied, will bolster and serve China’s interest and to an extent that of Russia, both of whom for different reasons want to undermine the growing India-US ties. The sanctions ball is in the American court.
(The author is also a founding Director of DeepStrat, a think tank)
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, Former Ambassador and Secretary in MEA, and Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi (firstname.lastname@example.org)