When New Delhi made the S-400 deal with Moscow, the US secretary of defense at the time, James Mattis, keeping India’s non-aligned status in mind, had argued for an exception. Now that the missile systems are being installed, it remains unclear whether India will escape the punitive measures specified by CAATSA and indeed possibly avoid any reprisals at all, in the context of the evolving Indo-Pacific security architecture, of which India is regarded by the US as an integral player. The Biden White House has probably not yet decided what to do.
Under CAATSA’s provisions, any country purchasing major defense equipment from Russia would be subject to harsh sanctions. This is meant to prevent Moscow from supplying arms and technology around the world. The likelihood that the US will follow through by taking action against India is low, given that Washington wants consistency and stability in its security relationship with India, which it regards as key to mounting a credible challenge to China’s more aggressive strategic posture in the region.
In this context, politicians and policymakers in the US are divided over a waiver for India, though support for India in the Congress, particularly the Senate, is strong. Some have called for sanctions to be deferred. Republican Party senators Ted Cruz, Todd Young and Roger Marshall have proposed 10-year exception for all Quad members. Key members of Biden’s Democratic Party have also been pushing the president to go easy on India.
Shielding New Delhi because of American national security considerations has become a key decision point for Biden. The president has cast the tensions on the rules-based international order as a clash between democracies the US and India and authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia. If Washington wants India to be an actively engaged power in the Indo-Pacific that can counter what it sees as China’s aggressive conduct in the region, it would be inappropriate for the US to impose sanctions on New Delhi for reinforcing its air defenses in its border areas, particularly its eastern frontier with China.
India, of course, has maintained defense ties with Russia for many decades. This longstanding relationship should not expose New Delhi to punishment under legislation so recently introduced. CAATSA sanctions would seriously undermine the ability of the US and India to pursue their shared security goals. Besides, India’s deployment of the Russian weapons is unlikely to compromise the security of the most sensitive US military equipment such as the F-35 joint strike fighter, which India does not possess.
In any case, the US has been one of India’s biggest arms suppliers in recent years. New Delhi has been diversifying its weapons portfolio. In 2020, US arms sales to India rose sharply to US$3.4 billion from just US$6.2 million the year before. Critical defence deals India has made of late include the acquisition of long-range Hereon MK II drones from Israel in September 2021, a US$3-billion contract for Predator drones from the US, and the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France.
The appropriateness and utility of US CAATSA sanctions on India should be viewed in the context of this effort at defense procurement diversification. Punishing New Delhi for buying the S-400s could drive India to revert to its historic preference for Russian supply, thus compromising the US-India security engagement.
It is also worth noting that India has joined in efforts to broaden industrial manufacturing and consumer supply chains, especially through its leadership with Japan and Australia in launching the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI). The SCRI highlights India’s capacity to bring together regional “like-minded” partners against common threats or challenges – in this case, dependency on Chinese supply networks.
Beijing’s calculations – and concerns
How has Beijing reacted to India’s installing the S-400 defense system? China, too, possesses S-400s in its arsenal, having bought them from Russia the same year as India did. In June 2021, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) redesigned Hotan air base in Xinjiang and Nyingchi air base in Tibet – right across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Indian region of Ladakh and state of Arunachal Pradesh, respectively — with the PLA sending S-400 units to shield these facilities from potential air attacks. While China received its second S-400 delivery in 2020, Beijing’s posture has remained tense over India’s upgrading of its own defense systems with a platform also owned by China, a significant step in narrowing the gap in capability.
The S-400 debate has, therefore, ramped up the pressure on all parties in the regional security equation: India, the US, Russia and China. The Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral meeting, which was most recently convened in November 2021, remains the key platform for the three countries to address common security concerns. In July 2020, in the aftermath of the Galwan Valley crisis, under the RIC format, Moscow emerged as an unofficial but critical mediator between New Delhi and Beijing.
The RIC could be an important platform for tamping down security tensions. Russia, after all, is more than just an arms supplier; it is playing a long geopolitical game and has its own intensions in the Indo-Pacific. Moscow aims to maintain strong ties with both India and China, while showing that it is not being dictated to by China. It also wants to have strong ties with India to secure its foothold in the region possibly to counter the US and fuel its bid to foster partnerships with other democracies in the neighborhood such as Japan, Australia and South Korea.
China, while anticipating that the US will refrain from applying sanctions on India, would benefit from a lull in India-US security cooperation. Washington, therefore, will be weighing the benefit that Beijing may get if the US takes action under CAATSA. Regardless, India’s deployment of its new missile defense system along the LAC is happening, posing a deterrent to Chinese aggression in the region. China has long been concerned about India’s defense ties with Russia, as Beijing and Moscow’s recent efforts to foster a closer relationship may be flagging.
Beijing will be watching Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 6 visit to Delhi for the annual India-Russia summit. Putin has maintained that Moscow’s relations with India and China are not contradictory and that no “extra-regional power” should intervene in matters relating to the India-China border dispute. The fact remains, however, that S-400s purchased by both China and India from Russia will be deployed on either side of that tense frontier.