Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to close the over $5 billion S-400 Triumf missile defence deal with Russia came as a surprise to many who believed that the government is bending over backwards to please the Trump administration. Indeed, US President Donald Trump said as much, when he told reporters in Washington that India wanted a bilateral trade pact with the US primarily “to keep me happy”.
But at the October 5-6 annual summit between Prime Minister Modi and Russian President Vladmir Putin in New Delhi, Modi made it clear India was not an American poodle. By going ahead with the missile purchase, ignoring US warnings, Modi was certainly not pleasing the US President. Washington wants to punish nations wanting to buy weapons from Russia. India has been warned not to do so, but Modi had promised Putin during the informal summit at Sochi on May 18, 2018 that the deal was on. He kept his word to Putin and now it is up to the US to decide what it wants to do with India. Should it brand Delhi for its strategic purchase of arms from Moscow and waste the new-found warmth in ties at a time when the US is looking to India to counter China’s growing military power in the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean? President Trump and his advisers would now have to take the call. In short the ball is in the US court.
India has always bought weapons from Russia. In recent years though it has also sourced military hardware from the US, Israel and other countries, yet the main supplier continues to be Russia. Why has it become a problem now?
It is mainly because of the new legislation passed in the US Congress last year, called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Sanctions automatically kick in when nations buy arms from countries designated as enemies of the US. Russia, North Korea and Iran topped the list when the legislation was signed by the President. North Korea is now no longer deemed an enemy state. The aim of the Act is to dissuade countries from buying arms or doing business with targeted enemies of the US. All countries going ahead with the purchases would have to bear the brunt of US sanctions. This is to make sure that the economy of Russia and Iran are hit.
India has been warned several times by senior US officials not to buy the S-400 missile system from Russia. Almaz Antey, the Russian company which manufactures the S-400, is on America’s sanction list. In September, China was punished with punitive sanctions for buying the same missile shield from Russia. It is now up to America to decide whether it wants to punish Delhi and risk losing a key defence partner in Asia and push India into the Russia-China camp. Beijing and Moscow have buried their past animosity and are collaborating to meet the US challenge in Asia. After its annexation of Crimea and its role in the Syrian conflict, and the alleged interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections, Russia has reignited the Cold War era animosity with America. China is the target of Trump’s trade war and now there is noise coming from Washington of Beijing’s attempt to influence the upcoming Congressional elections in the US.
India has repaired its tense ties with China post-Doklam in the ‘informal summit’ in Wuhan earlier this year. It is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organistaion (SCO), the Brazil Russia India China, South Africa (BRICS) and the Russia-India-China forums. India and China, despite the long-standing border problem and concerns about President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiatives, and China’s close friendship with arch-rival Pakistan, cooperates on several issues that affect developing countries on the international stage. Improved ties with China will give India option for manoeuvre if the US decides to act tough.
India’s arms purchases from Russia are not confined to the controversial S 400 Triumf missiles. There are others in the pipeline. The 200 series Kamov 226T helicopters worth $ 1 billion, four Krivak class frigates costing roughly around $ 2.2 billion, as well as AK 103 assault rifles. Preliminary talks are also on for producing Future Ready Combat Vehicles in India. The deal if it materializes would be a cool $ 4.6 billion. A Joint Statement at the end of the talks on October 5 reiterated the commitment to continue defence co operation between the India and Russia. A subtle message has been sent out to the US that the two countries were in no mood to abandon their traditional strong bond which had stood the test of time. However, as India was getting closer to the US and Russia was making overtures to Pakistan, there was a lull in ties. But the informal meeting in the Russian seaside town of Sochi in May this year helped to smooth out much of the misunderstanding. Putin and Modi seem to have also struck a personal rapport, which makes a major difference in relations between nations.
India and Russia have had close cooperation in the nuclear field, right through the Cold War period, at a time when the US and its western allies had slapped sanctions for its 1974 and 1989 nuclear tests. Though it was the former President George Bush who by signing the India-US civil nuclear agreement in 2005 brought India out of its nuclear-pariah status, not a single US-built power station is in operation in the country. The Kudankulam nuclear power station in Tamil Nadu built with Russian collaboration plant has six units. The first two units are in operation. The third and fourth units are under construction, and plans for the fifth and sixth are already finalised. India and Russia are jointly manufacturing equipment and building a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. The idea is to build small nuclear power plants in third countries.
Prime Minister Modi is conscious of the fact that in the past Russia had stood like a rock behind India at the UN and other international forums. At a time when Pakistan was heavily backed by the US and was a near NATO ally, Washington and its allies turned a deaf ear to all Delhi’s complaints about Pakistan’s hand in Kashmir and Khalistan. In fact, it was only after 2001, when the US and NATO forces were in Afghanistan that the situation changed. The CIA and Pakistan’s military worked closely together when the Russian forces were in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The fact that Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan are flushed with arms was basically a result of the massive supplies made by the US for the Afghan Mujahideen groups to fight the Russian troops. Now the tables have turned. Today US complains of terror hideouts in Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban being sheltered by the ISI. Washington understands India’s problems with Pakistan, which it had earlier rejected.
India under Modi seemed to be veering closer to the US. The defence partnership with the US, which had been at a standstill came to life after Modi took office. India has already signed two of the three foundation agreements, which makes cooperation between India and US defence forces easier. During September’s 2 plus 2 dialogue in Delhi, the two sides signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which lays the ground for obtaining high-tech military hardware from the US. The agreement allows Indian military to access to top-of-the-line secured and encrypted communication equipment. India had signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016. The third agreement, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA), will be discussed now. Besides these three, an end-user agreement will also have to be signed to ensure that the technology passed on to India is not given to any other country. Some in the US establishment worry about Russians getting their hands on American technology from India. India and the US navy have been holding the Malabar exercises regularly since 1992. Japan makes up the third country to join India and the US since 2015. The Malabar exercises are held in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and certainly add to China’s concerns about the three countries ganging up to contain China.
One of the principle reasons for America wanting India on board in the Indo-Pacific is to balance China’s growing assertiveness in not just the South China Sea but also across the Indian Ocean as well. India is large enough Asian power to offer a counter-weight to China. Delhi is well aware of that and is hoping that the US will therefore give India an exemption from sanctions for going ahead with the Russian missile defence deal. Delhi has pointed out to the Americans that the negotiations for the defence missile system had started much before CAATSA was passed. India needs the missile defence to guard against a sudden Chinese or even Pakistani air attack. The message to the Trump administration is that New Delhi cannot compromise on its strategic interests and needs it urgently. Last month National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was in Washington meeting with his counterpart John Bolton and defence secretary Jim Mattis. Doval‘s message was clear. The US can waive the sanctions if it wants to. But Delhi was in no position to scrap the negotiations. Officials are hoping that the Trump Administration officials would understand India’s compulsion. Till the time of writing, Washington has given no indication that it had made up its mind on the issue. With a mercurial President like Trump in the White House, nobody is sure what to expect. Delhi however remains optimistic.
The deed has already been done, and it is now up to the White House to deal with the consequence. Though Delhi is in a better position now to deal with the US, it is also a fact that Delhi needs both US and Russia. Good relations with the only super power opens doors for India. The US did some heavy lifting at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) when an exception had to be made for India during the Bush presidency. China and several other countries were opposed but the US ensured that the vote went through. India has big power ambitions and wants a place at the high table of international affairs, that can be facilitated by US. More importantly, good relations with the US has a salutary effect on China. Though America is unlikely to come to India’s help in case of a full-scale war with China, the fact that US backs India will make Beijing circumspect. India has long wanted US technology, but because of sanctions on Indian entities imposed by the US, for its two nuclear tests, that was impossible. Now however the groundwork has been laid through the foundation agreements for access to superior technology from the US.
While India needs the US, it cannot turn its back on Russia, a trusted ally. Whether in the fields nuclear or defence equipment, India is dependent on Moscow. Having relied on Russia for decades for its defence needs, India’s defence production units are geared to work with former Soviet equipment. It is a legacy issue which will take years to overcome. So as a developing power, India must have excellent ties not just with the US and Russia but all major powers. The Modi government had done well in relations to big powers, though its neigbourhood policy has been a disappointment.
Perhaps President Trump’s mercurial temperament has been a wake-up call for the Modi government. It is understood that going too far into the American camp could have pitfalls. So, maintaining its traditional ties with Russia remains vital. Modi has done just that. Ironically an independent foreign policy maintaining a balance between Russia and US was at the core of the Nehruvian legacy. Modi seems to have done some course correction and given some space for adjustments in a fast-changing international order.