Foreign Policy

Russian arms gross sales clouds US India ties

Biden’s top government officials spent the past week celebrating by allies in Tokyo and Seoul, rubbing shoulders, bumping elbows, and holding press conference after press conference in front of neatly pressed American, Japanese and South Korean flags.

But India, the next stop on Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s itinerary, is not going to receive or give exactly the same treatment. There is no “2 + 2” meeting on the program: Foreign Minister Antony Blinken has already left the trip because of a tense showdown with Chinese officials in Alaska. And New Delhi is a “strategic partner” – not on the same basis as Washington’s full treaty allies in Northeast Asia.

Austin will continue to receive high-level treatment and will meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday evening before speaking to India’s Defense Secretary and National Security Advisor on Saturday, two senior US officials said.

The differences to the rest of Asia will also determine the visit. India has a closer working relationship with the United States, which enables American fighter jets to refuel on Indian islands, exchange information on coronavirus vaccines with so-called quad countries, and restart long-interrupted military exercises with Australia.

U.S. Defense officials are grappling with a major thorn in the side of the relationship: India is still doing business with Washington’s adversaries, most notably by signing a $ 5.5 billion deal for Russia’s S-400 air defense system. US lawmakers and officials warn that future delivery of the weapons systems could put New Delhi at risk of US sanctions and set a cap on how far the relationship can go.

Turkey’s purchase of the same Russian system has already damaged relations with the United States and resulted in American sanctions against a Turkish institution that manages the defense industry. Now US officials are trying to find ways to avoid the same path with India.

“Relations between the US and India are largely synchronous, but Russia remains a key difference,” said Tanvi Madan, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

Biden’s government is also under pressure from Capitol Hill as it works to deepen ties with New Delhi. During the trip, Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, posted a letter to Austin calling on the Secretary of Defense to raise concerns about human rights and the decline in democratic norms in India and inform Indian colleagues that the S-400 Deal may be sanctionable under US law.

Russian weapons – which make up a large part of India’s arsenal – have a lower price and fewer terms than U.S. arms sales, including human rights rules and conditions for transferring the equipment to other countries.

But these arms purchases have a long logistical background, leaving India dependent on Russia for maintenance and replacement parts for its high-end defense systems.

Add to this the geopolitics of arms sales, with India’s historic track record of “misdirection” and careful balancing of relations across the region given the rivalry with Pakistan and the new tensions with China.

A senior US defense official said, on condition of anonymity, that India’s main consideration in purchasing the S-400 is to prevent Pakistan from buying it. “This is a strategic problem that the Indian government had,” the official said. “They feel obliged to do so because they have their own national interests. Let’s be blunt. “

While the missile system is not yet operational, India is in the process of deploying it. Officials likened the Russian system to something between the U.S. Patriot missile system and the larger Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system with longer range.

There has not yet been a transaction or event where the US would initiate sanctions, officials said, under a 2017 law called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The law contains provisions that penalize countries that buy Russian weapons systems, and there are no blanket or country-specific exemptions.

“Like all of our allies and partners, we have called on India to refrain from transactions with Russia that are at risk of sanctions [CAATSA]”A State Department spokesman told foreign policy.” On the whole, the defense partnership between the US and India has expanded significantly in recent years, reflecting India’s status as a key defense partner. We expect this strong one Continuing momentum in our defense partnership. “

While India is not a treaty ally, some experts believe Washington should find a way to sanction New Delhi through the S-400 system.

“The Indians have made a major strategic shift in their approach to China in recent years, and we would really shoot ourselves in the foot to get CAATSA right as it is written,” said Eric Sayers, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former special assistant of the commander of US Pacific Command. “This relationship is valuable enough if we can’t let some of these issues get in the way, like a historic relationship with the Russian government on arms sales.”

This debate raises broader questions about whether and when Washington should impose sanctions on partner countries that buy weapons from one US rival in a way that enhances their capability over another US rival.

“It is an open question to what extent this will affect partners like India, but also countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, which maintain these old relationships with Russia and will not give them up anytime soon,” said Madan. “In fact, it has to be argued that for America’s Indo-Pacific goals these countries are actually supposed to maintain and develop some level of military capabilities, and in some cases the US cannot offer those capabilities.”

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis pushed for a loophole for CAATSA in the National Defense Authorization Act almost three years ago, which would allow nations like India to face US sanctions if they showed they would part ways with Russian weapons over time would. Changes to CAATSA could provide a way to circumvent the slapping of – or at least the most severe – sanctions against India, even if it takes control of the S-400 platform.

The United States and NATO allies feared that Turkey’s use of the S-400 could undermine the stealth capabilities of the advanced F-35 fighter by exposing it to the strong radar of the Russian system and putting it at risk represent other military systems of the NATO allies. This prompted the Ministry of Defense to exclude Ankara from the advanced combat aircraft program in July 2019.

The Trump administration finally imposed very limited sanctions on Turkey in December 2020 to protect the country from major economic bleeding and to prevent a major explosion with another NATO member.

The controversy over the purchase of the Indian S-400 symbolizes US concern over the limits of deepening ties with India to rebalance China.

The United States has sought to use the concerted pressure of arms sales and the ongoing instability on India’s border with China to hold New Delhi off its traditional “unaligned” stand, a legacy of the Cold War era. Some U.S. officials believe Modi is slowly and carefully rejecting New Delhi’s misdirection strategy over time, but the Biden administration still has to grapple with a partner who views the United States with a certain level of skepticism and certain foreign policy Maintains priorities.

With regard to China, however, the Biden government is seeing openings. Indian and Chinese forces clashed deadly on the line of effective control, the border region between the two powers, in 2020, drastically exacerbating tensions and pushing New Delhi to work more closely with Washington.

Two senior US defense officials said India is also signaling its concern over Beijing’s navy, which moves between Africa, the Persian Gulf, Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca, as well as Chinese superstructures in Sri Lanka, the Pakistani port of Gwadar and in China Djibouti.

At the end of 2020, India allowed US military aircraft to use its base on the Indian Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the east of the Bay of Bengal for refueling for the first time. The exchange of information between the two partners has increased, and days before Austin’s visit to New Delhi, the Indian military reportedly decided to procure dozens of US-made armed drones valued at $ 3 billion. India has also purchased US-made Apache helicopters, artillery, and precision-guided ammunition in recent years. The Trump administration has urged India to buy F / A-18 fighter jets, which it is still considering, two former defense officials told foreign policy.

However, some current and former Pentagon officials were frustrated after saying they came to the aid of India during the Himalayan conflict with China last year and provided cold weather equipment and other equipment to aid India since it was with Provocations by the Chinese military had to fight.

“Even at this point, when there was the greatest pressure, the Indian effort to work with us was very cool and very limited,” said a former defense official on condition of anonymity. “There’s a long-term culture there that doesn’t favor that.”

Some Indians are still “skeptical” whether deepening relations with the United States, despite all the progress made in recent years, is a good idea, Madan said.

Justified or not: “India has historically been skeptical of the US as unreliable, has always forged relationships with partner countries and then armed their mutual dependency,” said Madan.

And while President Joe Biden sent Austin on a high-level visit to New Delhi just a few months after taking office, he also has to weigh up the difficulty of pushing Modi, his Indian counterpart, on human rights issues, a major foreign policy priority for them Government new white house. These include the efforts of the nationalist government to crack down on free speech and political opposition, as well as increasing discrimination against the Muslim minority population of India, which international human rights groups are persecuting with growing concern.

Another senior US defense official said the United States routinely raises human rights issues in meetings with foreign counterparts.

Currently, US officials appear to have resigned themselves to gradually improving defense ties between the two countries, without expecting anything like the full-fledged alliances that the United States has in the Pacific.

“I’m not going to tell you that we see you as someone who will swing with us and sign a mutual defense treaty tomorrow,” the senior defense official said. “India was and is a journey in 10,000 steps. We are on step 12, maybe on 15. “

Jack Detsch reported from New Delhi. Robbie Gramer reported from Washington.

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