Republishing this piece again as a ready advertence

The waiver should make for some happy talk during the India-US 2+2 dialogue on September 6 in New Delhi. It should also create momentum for forward movement on pending issues

by Seema Sirohi

The suspense is over. The US Congress has acted to remove the sword of sanctions hanging over US-India partnership. The greatest source of uncertainty in India-US relations in recent times, which threatened the very logic of the strategic partnership, is gone. Things changed on Monday after months of speculation.
The conference committee of the House and Senate agreed on the final version of an annual defence policy bill, which would amend the dreaded Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a law primarily aimed at Russia but broad enough to envelop both friend and foe.

India, Indonesia and Vietnam will now be exempt and can continue buying Russian military equipment. But the final language in the National Defence Authorisation Act for 2019 does not give the kind of wide waiver authority that US Defence Secretary James Mattis wanted. It is a modified waiver, requiring a presidential certification and specifies certain criteria that must be met. 

Mattis’ sustained lobbying on Capitol Hill got the administration this far, and there may be other legislative fixes down the road. He met several House and Senate members over the past few months, testified in front of committees and wrote letters. His last statement came on Friday as the conference committee finalised the language.

“The fundamental question we must ask ourselves is: Do we wish to strengthen our partners in key regions, or leave them with no other option than to turn to Russia, thereby undermining a once-in-a-generation opportunity to more closely align nations with the US vision for global security and stability,” Mattis said. Apparently, the last-minute push helped. “Secretary Mattis’ letter clarified that this was more about helping countries that want to come our way,” a Congressional aide told reporters.

Mattis underlined the high stakes -- any US sanctions on India would have put the relationship back at least a decade, if not more. The senators listened to him. It helped that he, a former general, is also the most respected member of the Cabinet.

As things stand, the Trump administration arguing for a waiver for India will have to meet one of two conditions – one, that India has significantly reduced dependence on Russia, or, two, it has significantly increased cooperation with the United States. Both criteria are easily met.

India’s defence acquisitions have, indeed, diversified over time. US defence companies have, in fact, shot ahead of Russian ones on new purchases. India signed 13 contracts with US firms worth Rs 288 billion and 12 contracts with Russia worth Rs 83 billion over the past three years, according to Indian Parliament figures.

However, the US Congress may still object to India buying the Russian S-400 air defence system on grounds that it will compromise US systems, an issue already raised by some members. But that is a bridge still quite far, given the slow pace of Indian decision-making, the many political calculations, and the final transfer of money to a Russian bank for the S-400.

What is clear is the anti-Russia sentiment on Capitol Hill is not about to fade anytime soon. Powerful senators, including Republicans, want to retain control of the process around CAATSA and the narrative on Russia, especially after the summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Trump was widely denounced for criticising the assessment of his intelligence agencies and underplaying Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. The Democrats will keep pushing on Russia to try to draw blood. Their leadership didn’t seem particularly concerned that friendly countries like India could get caught under CAATSA.

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said India buying the S-400 was not weaning itself off Russian equipment. The question is why Menendez, a senator with one of the largest Indian American populations, is taking hardline positions.

Where is the clout of the community that gathered in Madison Square Garden to work for better relations? Democrats in the Senate India Caucus -- a body increasingly used just as a box to check to get cheques from the Indian American community -- were also not in the forefront of the debate. Is it because the Indian government and its lobbyists were not banging their doors enough?

But in the end, enough senators recognised that hurting friends and agitating solid relationships was bad policy. They made the right call.

The waiver should make for some happy talk during the India-US 2+2 dialogue on September 6 in New Delhi. It should also create momentum for forward movement on pending issues.