Has India cocked a snook at the US by clinching a crucial $5.4 billion s-400 Triumf missile defence system with Russia that can potentially place India under severe US sanctions under CAATSA? It appears so at the outset. A narrative is being circulated to demonstrate how ‘independent’ India is in doing trade with Russia despite a looming US threat of sanctions. The US sanctions will kick in only on November 4 but India seems sure of being given a waiver by President Donald Trump.
Of course, it could all go wrong, given the unpredictable ways of Trump who does not hesitate to profess his ‘love’ for India and its prime minister, Narendra Modi, while not sparing criticism of the country for its trade and tariff practices that irk him. He has called India ‘Tariff King’. He also likes to make fun of Modi’s English accent!
But there are reasons to believe that Trump will not derail the India-Russia deal. The US seemed to have signalled in advance its approval of the missile deal ahead of its signing during a low-key two-day Putin’s visit to India in the last week of September. The US stand was not made publicly known perhaps to avoid similar demands being made by some other countries who want to continue trading with Russia—and also to convince India about US ‘sincerity’ in wooing India.
The waiver, as and when it comes, for the Russian missile defence system will be a one-time exception. But India is also hoping that the US will also not apply full sanctions in some oil-related related deals with Iran, one of the countries along with Russia, and China facing the full fury of maverick Trump. But India may not make a big issue should the US veto oil trade with Iran.
What is of more importance for India, as far as Iran is concerned, is the completion of the Chabahar port that will open a trade route to land-locked Afghanistan and the territories beyond. At the moment, the US position about Chabahar is clouded in uncertainty. It must have caused some anxiety in New Delhi but it does not seem to have been fully conveyed to the US.
There are questions about the claim that signing the Russian missile defence system is an example of India’s ‘freedom’ to pursue its interests unmindful of US wishes. The incorporation of the Russian missile system—after about two years—would make the country much more secure than it is at present.
But procuring a ‘game changer’ defence missile system would normally have been a big occasion for drum beating by an Indian government that likes to celebrate everything that it does with much fanfare, publicity blitz and plenty of self-praise. Contrast this with the fact that there was only a muted reference to the missile deal in a lengthy joint statement issued by India and Russia. There was no mention of it in the joint press conference given by Modi and Vladimir Putin, the Russian President.
It looked as though India was signing a deal with Russia in a hush-hush manner. Putin arrived in New Delhi to a warm reception at the airport but what was glaring was the absence of the prime minister. Putin was received by the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, not Modi as might have been more befitting given the importance attached to Putin’s visit and his stature as a leader who commands wide influence.
Modi had broken protocol on the visits of at least half a dozen heads of state or government by travelling to the Delhi airport to receive them with his customary hug. That included (former) US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Eyebrows were raised when he personally received the Jordanian ruler at the airport. Modi might see him as a good friend of India, but the fact is that the Jordanian King is not in the same league as the US and Chinese presidents and there is nothing ‘special’ in India’s ties with Jordan.
It can be surmised that Modi stayed away from the airport because he wanted the outside world (read the US) to note that India was not treating Putin effusively because he has become a bad boy in the eyes of the West. It is also possible that the US wanted India to keep Putin’s visit as low key as possible.
Not only Modi was absent at the Delhi airport, almost all the ceremonies associated with the visit of foreign dignitary were avoided. There was no guard of honour in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Putin did not pay floral tributes at the Rajghat. There was no stately banquet for him. In short, he came, he talked and quietly returned to freezing Moscow to face the blast from the US, the UK and other Western countries that have painted him as a villain who supports oppressive regimes by supplying arms, kills suspected Russian traitors in Europe and interferes in elections in the US.
The Americans, still not rid of their habit of telling others what is right and wrong for them, cannot be happy when such a leader receives a warm welcome in a ‘friendly’ country. But the US has already annoyed many of its old and traditional allies and friends. Why should it antagonize a newly acquired friend like India for doing something that after all, poses no threat to the US? The Russian missile defence system is clearly designed to protect India from threats from China and Pakistan; neither of the two is looked benignly by the US.
What could have perhaps prevented the US from thinking of using CAATSA against India was the near certainty of striking more lucrative defence deals with India, worth many more billions of dollars than the ‘paltry’ $5.4 billion s-400 Triumf order India is placing on Russia.
It would not be out of place that, according to Trump, India is showing signs of buckling under US ‘pressure’ by agreeing to lower tariff in consideration of US wishes. Trump has publicly announced that India wants a trade deal and the government of India has been silent on it.
What it all boils down to it is that the US gains by keeping its eyes and mouth shut on India’s missile defence deal with Russia. The Modi dispensation has entered into a tight US embrace which pleases a business-minded Trump even when he knows that India is not capable of being a counterbalancing force in Asia to face the Chinese Dragon.