Many in the US are hopeful that India will be granted a waiver. The presumption is that the US would not want to sanction a key partner in the Indo-Pacific and a member of the Quad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to New Delhi on Monday, his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and signing 28 agreements were perfect triggers to let the global media go buzzing on the fallout. Is President Putin in Delhi to complete the S-400 missile tracker deal? Will the US impose sanctions against India?
The media going hyper-active was natural. But not only media in India, the US and worldwide, President Putin’s New Delhi visit has evoked reactions from India and South Asia experts in American think tanks. A lot of these, while cautioning the White House, interestingly support India and argue for a “stronger strategic and business relations” between New Delhi and Washington DC.
Walter Andersen, South Asia expert in School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Johns Hopkins University, says, “at the end of the day, a strong united India is to the advantage of the US.”
Another expert on South Asian affairs and Director in Hudson Institute, Aparna Pande told The Sunday Guardian that the deal must be looked at from “India’s strategic perspective”. Pande said: “Indian officials may speak of a historical and close relationship with Russia, but there is a strategic dimension to these ties. India wants to ensure that Russia does not get too close to China, that Russia does not sell high value military equipment to Pakistan, and that Russia continues to keep India’s interests in mind when it comes to the region. Unfortunately, Delhi has only been partially successful on all of these. Unlike India-US relations that are multi-faceted, India’s relations with Russia are limited to the areas of energy and defence. Hence one way to ensure Russia keeps India’s interests in mind is to continue defence and energy purchases.”
Deputy Director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, Michael Kugelman defends New Delhi’s deal with Russia. “From India’s perspective, the deal certainly makes a lot of sense. India faces a major two-front threat from its two main rivals, both of them neighbors and nuclear-armed. India needs a missile defence system to strengthen its defensive capacities. And it’s only natural that India would turn to Russia, a top arms supplier for many years,” says Kugelman.
Pande too ties the S-400 missile deal with Russia in India-China threat perspective and there is an urgent need to “neutralise Moscow in India’s favour”. She explains the urgency: “India’s purchase of S-400 is heavily tied into the threat from China. China has purchased heavy military equipment from Russia including the S-400. There is a historical context as well: Till the Sino-Soviet split, the Soviet Union while positively disposed to India, supported China not India (in the 1962 war). It is only after the split that the Soviet Union became closer to India. With the rising salami-slicing moves by China along India’s northern border, China’s presence among all of India’s South Asian neighbors and China’s penetration into India’s sphere of influence, the Indian Ocean region, Delhi would like to make sure that Russia is either neutral or in India’s camp, if and when, any future conflict takes place.”
One way to do that, again, is to purchase more from Russia. And the US must look into this aspect before letting the sanctions buzz catch more fire. Kugelman said that it’s natural that there would be buzz about sanctions, because it’s such a dramatic notion—the idea of the US punishing one of its closest partners.
“But the buzz is indeed misguided, because it’s nearly unfathomable that the US would sanction New Delhi. The CAATSA legislation allows for waivers, and it should be fairly easy for the US to justify one. It can cite the fact, for example, that India has reduced its arms trade with Russia in recent years, and that many of its most recent defence deals with Moscow involve co-production arrangements as opposed to imports,” Kugelman told TSG.
Andersen too feels that it is doubtful that “the issue will end in sanctions”. “There is moreover considerably less public/news commentary in the US on the differences with India…At the end of the day, a strong India is to the advantage of the US.”
Pande, however, added a key point as why the US may see it differently. “The US understands India’s concerns about Russia, but the two countries have differing views on Russia: the US still views Russia as a threat both on the domestic and global front; India believes China is the bigger threat and that Russia can be weaned away from China.”
Andersen, who is a former diplomat, thinks the US must accept India’s multipolar diplomacy, though the trend is toward closer strategic and economic relations with the US. Andersen says: “The US long ago gave up the idea of a strategic alliance with India. Our mutual interests in both areas demand the closer ties—and that is not likely to change any time soon. India is not likely to abandon its posture of ambiguity on the larger strategic issues (like closer Indian military relations with the US) as that would undermine the subtle Indian position of using the option of moving even closer to the US if China takes assertive actions.”
The diplomacy demands to judge the “sanction threat” in the perspective of larger strategic relations with India and on a long-term basis.
Pande says: “The United States policy establishment, the Congress, and the White House understand that India has a historical defence relationship with Russia dating back to the Soviet era. At the same time, the US is pleased that over the last two decades, Russia is no longer the top defence supplier to India and instead it competes with Israel, France, and the US. While, successive American administrations have hoped that over time, India would lower its purchases from Russia to the bare minimum (spare parts, etc.), Washington understands that India has specific security concerns relating to its neighbourhood. Hence, Washington is often willing to look the other way when India takes certain actions because at the broader strategic level, India and the US, have similar interests.”
Kugelman sees the New Delhi-Moscow meeting earlier this week as a powerful diplomatic message. “If there’s one powerful message delivered by the Putin-India summit, it is that strategic autonomy is alive. India is clearly committed to maintaining a strong relationship with Moscow even as it ramps up its relations with Washington. To be sure, Washington would prefer that New Delhi distance itself from Russia. But I’m sure US officials acknowledge that’s not in the cards. While it’s somewhat of an imperfect analogy, it does bear mentioning that the US continues to favour having a workable relationship with Pakistan. So, in effect, with the US-India relationship, each side continues to pursue ties with the other’s rival.”
Pande agrees and supports India’s “independent posturing”. “The India-US relationship is built on strong foundations, and with the US-China peer rivalry at the heart of the Biden administration’s foreign policy, India’s importance to American national security will continue. While some in the administration and the Congress may not be happy about the upcoming India-Russia summit and 2 plus 2, it will be viewed from the lens of India doing what it always does, trying to stay independent.”
Pande and many others here in the US are hopeful that India will be granted a waiver. “The presumption is that the US would not want to sanction a key partner in the Indo-Pacific and a member of the Quad. As of now no waiver has been issued by the Biden administration,” Pande says something that will please many in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi. Even Kugelman thinks that as India has balanced its ties with other rivals of the US while still maintaining its ties with Washington, it’s credit to the strength of US-India relations that it’s been able to weather all this.
The support for India against the sanctions has been building on in the US think tanks. Last month, former US Ambassador to India, David C. Mulford, wrote his opinion piece in The Hill arguing, “the United States is risking its partnership with India by publicly saying it may sanction.”
Ambassador Mulford, who is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford University, wrote as how “India can help the US and the world become less reliant on China.” Mulford wrote the opinion piece with John Rivera-Dirks, his co-researcher on India-US Relations Project in Hoover. They both had argued that the US must invest in India as an equal partner to bring balance to the US dependence on outsourced global manufacturing and supplies of raw materials, finished goods and services. “Whether it be steel for ships, vaccines and pharmaceuticals for disease, microchips for autos, or programmers for the software service sector, India can be a credible alternative to China,” the article noted.
Is New Delhi listening these voices? New Delhi cannot afford to let fade this narrative being built in the US think tanks. Time for India to replace China in US demand-supply chain and play the perfect partner of Washington.
Maneesh K. Pandeya is Fulbright Professor, Editor & PhD Doctoral Student, Howard University, Washington DC