A week after the first-ever summit-level Quad gathering involving the US, India, Australia and Japan, New Delhi is ready for another round of strategic meetings. The US defence secretary, Llyod Austin, will be in India from Friday to Sunday (March 19-21) as part of his first overseas trip. In India, Austin will meet defence minister Rajnath Singh, foreign minister S Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, among others. While analysts suggest his visit will be aimed at bolstering cooperation in the security sector, a press release by India says Austin and Singh will discuss “deepening of the US-India Major Defence Partnership and advancing cooperation between our countries for a free prosperous and open Indo-Pacific and Western Indian Ocean Region”.

That could be another way of saying that the two nations, termed “natural allies” by their leaders in the past, will talk China and CAATSA, the 2Cs redefining the India-US relationship.

The China Challenge

Of course, it is the first C on the talks table. For Beijing has started a great game in the oceans of the world. It is snatching or buying everything in its way by fair or unfair means with its stated aim to become the “greatest maritime power in the world”. And it is getting there. Two-third of the world’s 50 major ports are either owned by China, or have received some Chinese investments. These could be called “Trojan Ports”. Just like the Greeks used the Trojan Horse to breach the impenetrable walls of Troy and conquer it, Beijing first sends in its investments followed by its military to control not just governments in the countries where these ports are but also the sea lanes by which their trade and oil pass.

Beijing’s argument is it is safeguarding its own interests. Then why should India be worried? Well, there are plenty of reasons for that. China is aggressively expanding its maritime footprint right in India’s backyard: the Indian Ocean Region. It has controlling stakes in Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, owns the Gwadar port in Pakistan, has a military agreement with Seychelles to use its ports, and has invested in Bangladesh’s Chittagong port. Long story short: geopolitical observers say this is China’s game plan of encircling India with its String of Pearls (strategic commercial and military installations). China now has the world’s largest Navy and used that muscle to take control of the South China Sea. Its plans for the Indian Ocean are fairly clear.

Given India’s lack of maritime resources, it needs back-up. The US is nursing its own China headache in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere. They have sparred over a host of issues — from trade to the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The South China Sea, one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, is a major bone of contention. Beijing claims it as its maritime empire. Thirty per cent of the world’s crude oil passes through this waterway. The US has played a key role in its security since World War 2. Now, China has challenged that.

Washington fears that China, at some point, might deny the US Navy access to these waters. The US has been regularly sending in its aircraft carriers and warships for freedom of navigation, a move that has led to some pretty tense encounters with the Chinese Navy.

The troubled waters of the Indo-Pacific, hence, are the new theatre of collaboration between India and the US to counter an expansionist China.

The CAATSA Conundrum

It’s the second C, which, in a way, could make the upcoming dialogues a bit awkward. CAATSA is an acronym for the “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act” by the US. Simply put, if any country buys any defence platform or fuel from countries such as Russia and Iran, then it will have to face sanctions from America. The federal law came in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US elections.

Despite the US pressure, India has gone ahead and purchased five S-400 Triumf air defence systems from Moscow at a cost of 5.5 billion dollars. Turkey and China are already facing sanctions by the US for a similar purchase. Though the issue is a sore point, India has so far avoided the sanctions list, thanks to its influence in the sub-continent, a strategically important region to counter the Chinese threat. But will New Delhi be the next in the list? That could be an uncomfortable conversation between Austin and Singh as India continues to seek a waiver. That waiver is likely to come as the Quad formalises, and the two countries look to collaborate with each closely against Chinese aggression.

Allies don’t sanction allies. But as they say, there are no free lunches. To a large extent, Washington’s CAATSA tantrum — some its leaders have pulled up India in the past — stems from the fact that New Delhi rejected two American systems, Patriot and THAAD, and went for the Russian S-400. So, will there be a trade-off, adding to the $18 billion India has spent in the last 20 years on ‘Made-in-America’ arms?

To be sure, India’s defence imports are down 33%. While Russia is the biggest loser with a dip of 53% in its exports to India, the US is second in the list with a 46% dip. While the US side will urge India to buy more from it, top sources say New Delhi will push ahead with its agenda of ‘Make in India’, the government’s flagship initiative to promote domestic manufacturing. India also wants American companies to invest in India’s defence manufacturing ecosystem and take defence partnership between the two countries to the next level.

Ahead of Austin’s visit, India has indicated it will buy the very expensive Reaper or Predator-armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) from the US. Thirty of them for $3 billon for the three services. The announcement could come during the visit. Delhi has also kicked off the process of buying six more long-range Poseidon-8I aircraft from the US for the Navy. Then, in the pipeline is a $20-billion contract for 114 medium multi-role combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force. The US will want to leverage the CAATSA threat for that as well. Conveniently, CAATSA has a clause that says if countries lessen their dependence on Russia and increase their cooperation with the US over a period of time, they qualify for a waiver.

End Note

India’s days of non-alignment are long gone. In the new world order, strategic relationships are formed based on the need to protect self-interests. And in such relationships, the cornerstone is always a “give and take” principle. Geopolitical observers will keep a close eye on what transpires in the latest round of meetings between the India and the US.