Stripped to the bone, the CAATSA sanctions are a way of forcing India to negate its multi-alignment strategy

From Narendra Modi’s visit to the United Stated for a bilateral with Joe Biden to the first ‘in-person’ Quad Leaders’ Summit hosted by the White House, the India-US relationship has never been better.

A confirmation of the spiralling trajectory of ties, and not just in defence and security, was evident most recently with the visit to India of Wendy Sherman earlier this month.

The US deputy secretary of state made all the right noises during her trip — going so far as to proclaim that the days of Washington hyphenating India and Pakistan are over, that the US no longer pursues a “broad relationship” with Pakistan except a narrow a specific one.

Sherman met external affairs minister S Jaishankar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, discussed the developments in Indo-Pacific (read China) and Kabul, and gave a ringing endorsement of India’s position in Afghanistan, declaring that India’s “security is first and foremost”, and will always be “front and centre” for the US and that New Delhi and Washington have “one mind and one approach” on Afghanistan.

Amid all these niceties, one issue stuck out like a sore thumb — India’s purchase of S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia — the first batch of which is due to be delivered this year.

India’s procurement of these weapon systems will immediately trigger secondary American sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), through which the US seeks to limit the sale of Russian arms to other states and starve Russian military-industrial establishment of funds. There is a provision for a waiver, but the sole authority rests with the president, who must work with the US Congress to show that the states under the sanctions cloud for dealing with Russian contractors meet the specific criteria for exemption.

The US Congress introduced the presidential waiver — six months at a time — through an amendment to Section 231 of CAATSA “presumably with India in mind”.

However, the Biden administration has given no indication that it may allow India’s purchase of S-400 to go through without the threat of sanctions. In fact, though India had struck the missile defence deal with Russia one full year before the enactment of CAATSA, the Biden administration’s stance has been to caution India against the procurement at the risk of causing considerable collateral damage to the bilateral partnership.

In February, soon after being sworn in, a Biden administration official told CNBC-TV18 that India’s proposed deal with Russia for S-400 systems could trigger sanctions and “we urge all of our allies and partners to forgo transactions with Russia”.

A month later, Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senator Bob Menendez, wrote to US defence secretary Austin Lloyd ahead of his trip to India that “If India chooses to go forward with its purchase of the S-400, that act will clearly constitute a significant, and therefore sanctionable, transaction with the Russian defence sector under Section 231 of CAATSA. It will also limit India’s ability to work with the US on development and procurement of sensitive military technology. I expect you to make all of these challenges clear in conversations with your Indian counterparts.”

On 6 October, during a roundtable with journalists, the visiting US secretary of state described the S-400 deal as “dangerous”. “We’ve been quite public about any country that decides to use the S-400. We think that it is dangerous and not in anybody’s security interest,” said Sherman, according to a report in The Hindu.

There are two broad reasons why imposing CAATSA sanctions on India is a very bad idea. One, it would indicate that the US considers Russia, not China, as its primary strategic threat — a self-defeating posture that goes against the grain of its own assessments. Second, imposing the secondary sanctions on India will reverse bilateral ties by at least two decades and severely hamper the Quad — the Indo-Pacific bulwark that Biden is betting on.

As noted earlier, driven by strategic imperatives and despite some persisting irritants, India-US partnership is scaling new heights. The prime minister recently returned from a tour of the US where he met the US president for a bilateral engagement that delivered what the leaders called “a partnership for global good” touching areas of Indo-Pacific, climate change, Afghanistan, post-COVID recovery and vaccine delivery and “many areas of critical and emerging technology – space, cyber, health security, semiconductors, AI, 5G, 6G and future generation telecommunications technology, and Blockchain, that will define innovation processes, and the economic and security landscape of the next century.”

The Quad Leaders’ Summit laid out an ambitious roadmap with initiatives in areas of COVID and global health, high-standards infrastructure, climate action, green shipping network, people to people exchange, Quad scholarship, synergy on critical and emerging technology, cybersecurity and capacity building in space.

Alongside, we have India’s Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat meeting US counterpart General Mark Milley in Pentagon on 30 September where they discussed “a range of issues, including ways to ensure regional security”, Indian Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh and Chief of US Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday witnessing the Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal on October 14 aboard USS Carl Vinson, which hosted 12 Indian officers during the six-day naval exercises involving the Quad nations of India, Australia, Japan and the US.

India’s foreign secretary Harsh V Shringla was recently in Washington where he met US deputy secretary of state and discussed the “advancing the India-US Strategic Partnership across sectors including healthcare, defence & security, trade & investment, S&T [science and technology], climate change, clean energy and people to people ties” . Topics also included “continued coordination on Afghanistan” and “strengthening Indo-Pacific cooperation through the Quad.”

Following Shringla’s trip, Sherman arrived in India for a two-day visit from 5 to 7 October to continue the spate of high-level engagements between the two sides. According to Michael Kugelman of Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank, “The future of US-India relations seems clear. Shared concern about China binds the two countries together and ensures a prominent role for India in the United States’ Indo-Pacific policy. But for nearly three decades, the two sides have found common ground on everything from democracy and trade to, more recently, health and the climate crisis. That’s why high-level US-India meetings have expansive agendas, including Sherman’s meetings this week.”

The recent trends apart, multiple US presidents have invested in a closer partnership with India out of a belief that the largest democracy in the world and one of the fastest emerging economies will provide a natural counterweight to China — a belief that has been formalized in US Indo-Pacific policy under Donald Trump and has received further impetus under the incumbent Biden.

Imposition of CAATSA sanctions on India will nullify these gains in one fell sweep. It will reinforce in India the image of US unreliability as a partner, sound the death knell for cooperation and strengthen the hands of US sceptics who remain influential in Indian strategic community. It would also underline that US partnership is never unconditional. No sovereign State will accept such coercive measures that seeks to limit its choice, and it will likely trigger a visceral reaction from India whose post-colonial wounds are still fresh.

More importantly, as Brookings scholar Tanvi Madan has pointed out, the sanctions may reinvigorate the “baggage” of history and memories of US cutting off military supplies in 1960s, dispatching the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal “to try to intimidate the Indian government” and economic sanctions in May 1998 for the underground nuclear tests.

It is understandable, and India has clarified in no uncertain terms, that no amount of threat from the US will deter it from procuring the weapon systems that New Delhi considers as crucial to national security. India had also sent a delegation led by the then foreign secretary to the US in 2018 to make the case in favour of a sanctions waiver, clarifying that “no weapons India bought would be used against the US”, that it would “hamper India’s military abilities by applying the sanctions or denying the country crucial technology” and “India has significantly reduced its dependence on Russian military hardware while increasing defence purchases from the US, and it would be unfair if the US rewarded the effort with punitive measures.”

That argument delivered a modification in the form of a waiver, but successive US administrations have gone out of their way to indicate that India must not take a waive for granted. The argument behind this policy is that the US wants to set no precedents when it comes to an exemption but even the lurking of CAATSA, even if it is kept as a warning at this stage, is damaging enough for bilateral ties and even more so for the US.

Washington’s credibility among the smaller Indo-Pacific states — if “most strategic partner” India were to come under the CAATSA sanctions — would lower even further.

Moreover, the threat of sanctions from a country that initially refused to give India the surface-to-air missile defence system forcing India to strike a deal with its longstanding partner that has always, unlike the US, been ready to share cutting-edge defence technology.

As Sameer Lalwani and Tyler Sagerstrom of Stimson Centre write in War on the Rocks, “Even while India aligns more closely with the US, though, it retains a strategy of multi-alignment, which entails foregoing alliances to maintain partnerships with a diverse set of states — something that CAATSA effectively targets. Sanctions are an attempt to force India to choose between arms ties with the United States or with Russia. While the United States might expect this to be an easy choice, it runs counter to India’s grand strategy and decades-long partnership with Moscow.”

The CAATSA legislation, which seeks to punish Russia by sanctioning third parties who try to do business with Moscow, speaks of a US unipolar moment that has long walked into the pages of history. It is antithetical to the multipolar world that we find ourselves in.

For instance, the imposition of sanctions won’t prevent India from going ahead with the deal, instead it may encourage Russia or even France to increase their share of India’s arms import pie, and severely undermine the larger US objective of working with India in the Indo-Pacific.

The post-2008 United States is no longer able to bend the arc of history and demand exceptionalism. The sooner Washington realizes it, the better.