Last month, U.S Admiral Philip S. Davidson, the nominee for the Pacific Command Commander warned the American Senate that India could be sanctioned through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if the S-400 missile system deal with Russia was signed. At that moment, he pointed out that this movement would cause setbacks for Indo-US relations by the time that both are becoming increasingly close partners in strategic affairs. The deal signed in 2016 between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart, Vladmir Putin, will provide the South Asian country with four units of Russia’s most advanced long-range surface-to-air missile defense system.
The CAATSA was signed into law on August 2017 by Donald Trump. According to the official document, it aims to apply sanctions to Iran, North Korea and Russia – the new “Axis of Evil” of current American administration. In Iranian case, the main goal is to make it difficult for Teeran to obtain external cooperation (material and/or financial) for its nuclear program. As for North Korea, the sanctions obstruct its international trade and diplomatic relations with American allies and forbid US financial institutions to provide services to Pyongyang. Last but not least, it lists several sectors of Russian industry that could suffer sanctions and authorizes the punishment of US allies who buy Russian military equipment – and that’s where New Delhi could face a tough foreign policy challenge.
India’s approach to the US is historically volatile. During much of its post-independence history, Indian leaders changed drastically their mindset regarding Washington as foreign policy paradigms shifted. In the 1950s, non-alignment drifted India way from American influence and ended up pushing it closer to the Soviets. Ironically, despite claiming its non-aligned flag, India was clearly in the Soviet Union sphere of influence during most of the Cold War. Hostilities between New Delhi and the United Stated grew as Indira Gandhi came to power, mainly for mutual lack of interest in engaging a peaceful dialogue and because of Indira’s nuclear aspirations.
In the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet bloc was showing signals of political and economic exhaustion, Rajiv Gandhi tried to resume talks with the West. However, social turmoils and Indian intervention in South Asian countries dominated much of his agenda, pushing the West to the sidelines of his foreign policy priorities. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, India was forced to review its dependence on Russia in international affairs and its ties with the US as it became the only super power after the end of the Cold War. While the remaining idealism from the Nehru era was (rightfully) abandoned at that time, India continued to be dependent on Russian arms imports for the modernization of its military.
In the Modi years, the multi-alignment paradigm managed to solve old distrusts between the US and India. As Washington realized that New Delhi could play an important role as a partner in strategic issues, bilateral ties finally seemed to gain momentum. For the U.S, countering China and having a reliable partner in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific explain much of the interest in India’s friendship.
As for New Delhi, countering China in the Indo-Pacific is a common interest, but it also expected to reduce its historical dependence on Russian arms and support in global affairs. According to a report by SIPRI, the U.S arms exports to India grew by 550% between 2013 and 2017. It is the second largest arms supplier to India now, accounting for nearly 30% of its military imports. Russia is still the largest arms supplier, with 62% of total Indian arms imports in the same period of time. Besides that, the IBM has more employees in India than in American soil and the US has the largest Indian community outside India. The United States now is also India’s top foreign investor.
Despite the positive data regarding growing investments and arms trade, the current confrontations between Washington and Moscow poses a risk to New Delhi’s multialignment approach. Like in the Cold War, the US is demanding its allies and partners to act fully in favor of its interests in global affairs, polarizing the world once against between democracy supporters and the “Evil Axis”. The CAATSA is another chapter of this trend, as it means to sanction friendly countries who trade with rival countries.
This puts India in a delicate balance between both countries as they clash in peripheral conflicts. New Delhi needs both the US and Russia for the same reasons: arms supply and strategic partnerships among areas of interest. If it chooses to tilt towards Russia it could worsen its dependency pattern on Moscow and it would put India in the path of becoming another hostile country. Besides that, it could hamper the sending of billions of dollars in remittances of Indian residents in the US which could subsequently impact India’s economy. Last but not least, it could deteriorate India’s relations with European countries, as there would certainly be restrictions for trade and investment. On the other hand, aligning to the US could undermine India’s ambitions in Central Asia, a major sphere of Russian influence, and push Moscow closer to China and Pakistan as a counterbalance measure. This trilateral configuration would create a strategic siege against India in South Asia, thus jeopardizing its regional influence.
It is paramount for India to find the right balance between both countries, as US-Russia standoff seems nowhere near a solution. This will be one of the biggest challenges for Narendra Modi’s last year in term. Multialignment needs to be strengthened as the basis for New Delhi’s foreign policy, as it cannot repeat the mistakes of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. With the current increasing great power competition, the CAATSA interference might be just the beginning of further American meddling in Indian interests.
*Luciane Noronha M. de Oliveira, Fellow of South Asian affairs of the Brazilian Naval War College. firstname.lastname@example.org