The decision by India to deploy Russia-supplied missile defense systems along its border poses a challenge for the US – whether to impose sanctions on its key security partner in the region. Jagannath Panda of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi argues that Washington must consider India’s key role in challenging China, both within and outside the emerging Quad framework, as the Biden administration considers a waiver of sanctions that US law would require for India’s weapons deal with Moscow.
Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile systems for India: Moscow and New Delhi have been longtime defense and security partners (Credit: Sergei Malgavko/TASS)
India’s strategic autonomy and its resistance to a foreign policy driven by any military alliance have for long highlighted its dedication to being a truly plurilateral actor in global affairs. Such maneuvring has required the careful balancing of multifaceted ties with global powers, who more often than not have been adversaries. New Delhi appears to be pursuing a “pointed alignment” as it gives priority to the growing Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, grouping with Australia, Japan and the US. But it has long sought to maintain a tricky equilibrium in its ties with “comprehensive global strategic” partner, the United States, and “special and privileged strategic” partner and long-time military equipment provider, Russia, while striving for regional competition-cum-economic-cooperation power parity with China.
A prime example of how interests can clash is India’s decision to deploy two Russia-provided S-400 missile defense systems along its borders with both Pakistan and China. This has taken place against the backdrop of the one-year old administration of President Joe Biden in Washington that is mulling a waiver for India to avoid penalties required by the US Countering America’s Adversary’s Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). This drama is proving to be a test of New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy and strategic engagement with the US, which have become more robust since last year’s bloody India-China border clashes.
India’s tricky balancing act
After almost six years of negotiations, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018 signed the US$5.5-billion agreement with Russia for the supply of five S-400 units. This opened New Delhi to the threat of sanctions by the US under CAATSA, legislation passed in 2017 during the presidency of Donald Trump in response to the tense domestic political atmosphere resulting from revelations about Russian interference in the US elections, Ukraine and Syria. The US Congress intended for CAATSA to limit the Trump administration from giving concessions to Russia.
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.
Quad dynamics and the US-India security relationship
A decision by the US not to waive CATSAA sanctions against India would weaken the US-India security partnership and potentially weaken Quad cohesion just at the point when the grouping has hit its high point following the virtual summit of the four in March and their first in-person leaders’ gathering in September. Applying sanctions would severely diminish the strategic importance of the growing partnership, challenging its efficacy in containing China across the region.
India’s deal with Russia for the procurement of the S-400 missiles predates the revival of the Quad, but it contributes to the combined ability of Quad powers to deter China. While Quad powers, primarily Australia and Japan, will be concerned about sanctions that would potentially undermine unity against China, India’s deployment of S-400s is unlikely to disrupt the Japan-Australia-India trilateral framework. But, should Japan’s relations with Russia deteriorate, Tokyo would be unlikely to welcome future major defense procurement deals with Russia by New Delhi.
In the middle of all this, India could yet emerge in a strong position despite the tricky balancing of powers and partners. Consider its security position. The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) air guard rockets can at present just hit targets 40 kilometers away. The Medium-Range Surface-to-Air Missile, or MRSAM, which India will get from Israel in 2022, would expand this reach to almost 80 kilometers. The S-400, however, more than quadruples the IAF’s coverage.
From a defense perspective, the technological leap offered by the S-400s far offsets the geopolitical consequences of US sanctions or further complications with China. The S-400s offer the IAF a pathway out of some serious pending problems. By 2027 when over 100 antiquated Russian MiG-series jets are retired, the IAF will be left with only 19 squadron units. They would rely mainly on the 36 Rafale warrior jets from France, the last of which is to be delivered by January 2022. The S-400 platform should be capable of screening fighter jets such as Pakistan’s F-16s and China’s J-20s taking off from landing strips in Tibet or deep into Pakistan territory as soon as they are airborne.
The S-400 debate has heated up in the aftermath of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) deal to develop a nuclear-powered submarine program for Australia and cooperate on new technology. AUKUS signaled Biden’s commitment to rebuild alliances and partnerships, though in the process, Washington soured its relations with France, one of its oldest allies. Add to this backdrop the haphazard withdrawal of US and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces from Afghanistan, which opened the door for the Taliban to regain power. These developments have cast doubt on the US role as security guarantor in the region. By not imposing sanctions on India, the US could restore some of that lost confidence among its partners and demonstrate to adversaries its enduring commitment to regional security.
As India looks to strengthen its strategic autonomy as a rising power in the Indo-Pacific and a strong deterring force against China within the Quad partnership, it is determined to bolster its air-defense capabilities with the latest equipment well suited to its terrain. US legislation should not compromise India’s ability to purchase weapons that best fit its requirements, especially considering New Delhi’s position as Washington’s prime security partner in the region and the growing importance of the Quad. The US instead should give India the incentives to make more defense deals and deepen security cooperation with Washington, furthering the evolving “comprehensive” and “global” nature of the US-India strategic partnership.
Joshi, Yogesh. (March 11, 2021) “A Stare and a Wink: How India Achieved a Chinese Rollback in the Himalayas”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Panda, Jagannath. (June 2, 2021) “Decoupling and Diversification: China, the Belt and Road, and the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Panda, Jagannath. (April 12, 2018) “India, the Quad, and the China Question”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Panda, Jagannath P; and Gunasekara-Rockwell, Ernest (eds). (December 2021) Quad Plus and Indo-Pacific: The Changing Profile of International Relations, Routledge, London, UK
Manokhar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses