With a $5-billion contract signed on Friday during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to India, New Delhi will finally acquire the S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile system despite a threat of US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and possible impact on the $15-billion arms trade with the US.
Exports of weapons and energy are Russia’s most important revenue sources. Promoting weapons is thus a major task of Russia’s diplomacy. The inexpensive Russian weapons can satisfy the needs of developing countries and can be especially essential for those under US arms embargo.
The Soviet Union was the biggest weapons provider for India during the Cold War. Afterward, India turned to the US, Europe and Israel for arms, but it still needs to continue procuring weapons from Russia due to the compatibility and upgrade of its weapons acquired during era of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, the US has attached too many political strings to arms sales to non-allies and offered limited support to India. Although Washington tries hard to woo India, distrust of Washington and an anti-US sentiment are high in Indian society.
By contrast, the Indian government and public consider Russia a more reliable partner since the two countries have no historical and geopolitical conflicts and Russia has fully supported India on various issues without attaching conditions. For India, purchasing Russian weapons is a reliable choice taking into account political and security factors. It can also be cost-effective given New Delhi’s tight defense budget. The circumstances won’t change within a short time.
The US enacted the CAATSA to stop other countries from purchasing weapons from Russia. This, however, infringes upon their sovereignty and interests. But India has defied the act. The best way to hold back India’s procurement of the S-400 system is to provide it with air defense systems which are better and cheaper. Otherwise, threats and sanctions will only deepen India’s distrust in the US. The Indian government will also face a public backlash if it succumbs to US pressure and abandons the deal with Russia.
In September, the US sanctioned the Chinese military over its purchase of Russian military jets and surface-to-air missiles, according to BBC. Will Washington do the same to India?
The US will likely grant a sanctions waiver to India or impose symbolic sanctions, otherwise India could drift away. With a trade war with China and political and military confrontation with Russia, if the US offends India now, it would push New Delhi closer to China and Russia. Despite their disputes at bilateral and regional levels, China and India have more in common than differences over global issues. And they, together with Russia, advocate a multipolar world and democratization of international relations against the US pursuit of unipolarity and hegemony, which is the underlying reason for their trilateral mechanism. While China and Russia are both important factors in US-India relations, New Delhi approaches the US out of India’s vigilance against China, but it fears being too close to Washington would hurt ties with Moscow.
India is the world’s largest weapons importer and hence an important market for American arms dealers. To capture the market, the US has not only eased restrictions on exporting advanced weapons and technologies to India and allows some technological transfer to the South Asian country, but also agreed to relocate the production line of F-16 jets to India. If the US decides not to sell weapons to India due to its deal with Russia, India can certainly turn to France, the UK and Israel, or buy more from Russia. This will eventually damage US interests.
Meanwhile, imposing harsh sanctions on India would mean an abortion of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy of which India is a major player. The administration of US President Donald Trump declared a South Asia strategy in August last year to woo India. While India is in need of strategic involvement of the US, Washington needs India more since both its strategies cannot hold on without New Delhi’s cooperation.
Indian and Russian militaries regularly hold joint drills, which not only enhance their military cooperation, but boost strategic trust between the two countries. Putin and Modi said in a statement after their meeting that the two countries will continue carrying out joint military drills this year, which means their military cooperation won’t be affected by US threats.
The author is director of the Center for Indian Studies at China West Normal University and a senior research fellow with The Charhar Institute.