S-400 deal gives US a unique chance to spell out special relations with India
India’s decision to purchase the S-400 Triumf missile defence system from Russia has handed the US a unique strategic opportunity to distinguish India from China on their dealings with Russia: sanctions for Beijing, waiver for New Delhi.
But will the US make this call? Already, some Washington lobbyists are pitching an even-handed application of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Caatsa). Sanctions were imposed on Chinese entities only last month for the S-400 deal. So how can US President Donald Trump make an exception for exactly the same ‘offence’ even if he has the authority to grant a waiver?
It’s a compelling question, and it’s true that Trump has openly expressed his frustration with India on trade issues. But it’s also a fact that the Trump government pitched for a waiver clause in Caatsa, largely keeping India in mind. The time has come to reveal that purpose.
There are only two-and-a-half ways to look at this. First, let’s deal with the ‘half ’. The question of imposing sanctions will technically arise only when the actual transaction of money happens. So, there’s still time to buy. Meanwhile, both sides can publicly hold on to their respective positions.
The problem with half measures is that they usually skirt around the real issue. Which, in this case, ought to be China, not Russia and the strategic cost that Moscow will have to bear in mind for its relationship with Beijing.
Clear Benefits for India ::
Then there’s the other option to proactively indicate that a waiver for India has clear benefits. While it’s true that India depends largely on Russia for its defence supplies, the fact is that the Russian share is on the decline.
Broadly, 60% of Indian supplies are today from Russia. The remaining 40% is divided between the US, Israel and other countries. Of this, it’s estimated that US corners around 11-13% business.
This, mind you, is an improving trend. Since 2008, India has roughly bought $18 billion worth of defence items from the US, which is a significant surge given that both countries discovered and built on their strategic convergences only over the past two decades.
Actions taken over the last month, like granting India the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 status— a minimal, almost licence-free regime on trade in defence items— and the signing of the Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (Cismoa), will make it way easier for US defence companies to sell their wares in India. It’s in India’s interest not to diversify its suppliers’ basket. Which is why it makes sense to further increase defence trade and manufacturing with the US.
At a strategic level, the US must consider that India cannot accomplish its strategic role in the Indo-Pacific without Russian-origin assets. It may be a US objective to reduce India’s reliance on Russia, but it will take more time and trust for that to happen.
Here, it’s important for the Trump administration to understand India’s strategic relevance as a lynchpin in both the global war against terror—especially when it comes to Pakistan, as well as managing China—be it on ground or in the ocean.
On the other hand, any move to impose Caatsa sanctions on India will signal that Washington is trying to equate Beijing with New Delhi. It will also signal that the US wants to dictate India’s relationship with a third country, in this case Russia.
Both of these will be unacceptable. In fact, it will disincentivise India from building a defence relationship with the US and actually push it closer to Russia. It will introduce a fresh trust deficit that may take a long time to wipe off.
A Trustworthy Ally ::
Let’s not forget, India sounded out the US about its decision on purchasing the S-400 well in advance. It was in keeping with the existing trust levels that US interlocutors at the highest levels were made aware of India’s intent. To be fair, the US didn’t let this come in the way of holding the 2+2 dialogue for which both US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and secretary of defence James Mattis came to India.
Importantly, unlike some of Russia’s other relationships, the one with India is not targeted against the US, and New Delhi can assure that it remains that way. In fact, this puts India in a unique situation that the US may find is mutually beneficial in the future.
However, there’s a genuine technical concern in the US about exposing high-end American weapons to Russian systems. This is a concern even for Moscow. Here, the onus is on India to ensure that when it comes to operating protocols and technical solutions there’s no compromise.
While there are many ways to look at a deal like the S-400, there’s a strategic dividend for Washington, especially the Trump govt, to openly and firmly back a waiver for New Delhi. Until now, India has always sought exceptions from the US to catch up with China.
This is, perhaps, for the first time where the US can send out a message that it’s wrong when China buys the S-400 but fine if India does. The strategic resonance of such a message will be not just significant, but transformative.