Trump said last week that India “is going to find out” the answer “sooner than you think”, when asked about India coming under CAATSA

by Seema Sirohi

The buck stops at President Donald Trump’s desk. Will he or won’t he grant a waiver to India from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions for signing the deal for the Russian S-400 air defence system?

Technical teams from the US Defence Technology Security Administration and India have been meeting to figure out the implications of the deployment of S-400 alongside US systems. This means the two sides are trying to mitigate mutual concerns and avoid going down the dark road of sanctions.

Trump said last week that India “is going to find out” the answer “sooner than you think”, when asked about India coming under CAATSA. Read his words and they sound ominous. But watch him, and it’s a different story. The tone, the body language — he didn’t wag a finger, or launch a verbal assault, as he normally does if he doesn’t like something.

More importantly, on India continuing to buy oil from Iran, he said India had energy needs to fulfil. “We will take care of that.” That’s the opposite of adversarial. The November deadline to bring Iranian oil imports to ‘zero’ seems to have some elasticity.

Questions about Iran normally send Trump into a minor rage about Tehran’s ‘malign’ activities in the region, its anti-Israel moves, its support of terrorist groups and its general overreach in West Asia. That he didn’t erupt is significant.

Here’s my take on the state of play: Trump is well briefed on India and doesn’t seem unduly agitated about New Delhi’s recent decisions. Perhaps, he has already made his calculation — a ‘good’ trade deal with India in exchange for a CAATSA waiver and an assurance that New Delhi will give a nod to either the F-16 or the F-18 deal.

Several US-India watchers I spoke to said Trump has a deeper sense of the relationship, but he will extract his pound of flesh. Is India ready to cut a deal on long-contested trade issues to continue to insulate the strategic partnership?

So far, the video conferences between the Indian and US trade officials have yielded no results. The Americans want everything without giving an inch. Apple, Abbott Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson are all using their leverage with the administration to pressure India. US defence companies, on the other hand, are reaching out to the White House to get a CAATSA waiver for India. They don’t want to lose India’s future business. Trump gets that. Go no further than his reaction to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and apparent murder. When asked if he would consider sanctions, Trump’s immediate reaction was to remind people that Saudi Arabia was planning to spend $110 billion on US weapons.

There are also good old-fashioned reasons for a waiver. Defence Secretary James Mattis has already taken a position, forcefully arguing for a waiver before the US Congress. He wouldn’t have made the case to amend CAATSA without White House approval. Mattis also wrote a joint letter with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for flexibility. Yes, a waiver is not automatic, and the final call will be taken by Trump.

But why would the White House spend political capital arguing for a waiver and then not use it? Besides, if the US is pinning a large part of its Indo-Pacific strategy on India’s role, even renaming the Pacific Command the Indo-Pacific Command, it would be counterproductive to sanction New Delhi.

Fears about National Security Adviser John Bolton taking a pro-sanctions view may be exaggerated. In the end, he will follow the leader. I don’t see him swimming against the tide and resigning because Trump didn’t sanction India. Besides, his views on India have evolved as they have on China.

In general, US officials resent having to treat India as a ‘unique’ case — US bureaucracy vehemently opposed the 2008 India-US civil nuclear deal. But they also see the benefits, especially now with Trump’s Cold War with China getting hotter.

To be sure, between now and Trump’s decision, Washington will keep up the pressure, cite the law, say the waiver is not automatic and continue the verbal barrage. The State Department can’t very well publicly say it’s okay to flout US law. But US officials also know sanctions on India would take us back to the Stone Age in bilateral ties when the testier you were, the better you felt. That would be a win-win for Russia and China. And the Russian and Chinese ambassadors in India are already doing everything to drive a wedge. That’s become too obvious.