‘India will find out’: Trump threatens

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News Analysis |

In characteristic style, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, has said in a news briefing that ‘India will soon find out’ while responding to a question about possible sanctions on India for buying the S-400 missile system from Russia. The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, came to New Delhi for a two-day visit. The two sides made commitments to strengthen collaboration on common interests and continue the decade’s long mutually beneficial relationship.

The key takeaway from the visit was the signing of $5 billion deal for the S-400 SAM (Surface to Air) missile defense system. The S-400 is widely recognized as the most advanced missile defense system in the Kremlin’s arsenal. It can track up to a hundred targets in the air from a range of 400 kilometers, including the state-of-the-art American stealth fighter jet F-35.

The signing of the deal can prove to be very significant. For one, it shows India is not going to let go of its ties with Russia, despite US protests. Two, the US-India relationship is not as rock solid as Washington would like it to be.

The fact that India is buying this system says a lot about its relationship with the United States as well as Russia. New Delhi has enjoyed close ties with Moscow throughout the Cold War, despite being nominally ‘non-aligned’. When the 1971 war broke between India and Pakistan, New Delhi’s fleet of fighter aircraft included a large number of the Soviet Union’s MiG-21s. A defense pact was signed prior to the conflict.

India relied on Soviet weaponry virtually throughout the second half of the 20th century. In the 1990s, the Indian economy was liberalized and New Delhi opened up to the West. When Russian troops came to Pakistan to participate in counter-insurgency training, some news channels in India blamed Moscow for ‘treason’. Now, with the signing of this deal, India is exercising its ‘strategic autonomy’, as the Times of India puts it.

Read more: Russian helicopter maker has eyes on India

One way of seeing the deal is that Delhi doesn’t want to let go of its relationship with Moscow and it doesn’t consider itself beholden to US interests in the region. What are US interests in South Asia? Most analysts argue that Washington needs India as a counter-weight to China’s growing influence across Asia. The US needs an economically and militarily strong India to counteract China’s ‘hegemonic’ ambitions. To be fair, China is arguably a generation ahead of India.

In characteristic style, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, has said in a news briefing that ‘India will soon find out’ while responding to a question about possible sanctions on India for buying the S-400 missile system from Russia.

Nevertheless, the signing of the LEMOA or the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement between the US and India –which allowed for the use of each other’s military bases for training and supplies and several joint naval exercises– shows American willingness to augment India’s military muscle. In Afghanistan, both are funding the government in Kabul. Though admittedly, the US would like India to foot a greater share of the bill.

Why is there a talk of sanctions when the two sides have so much to gain from their relationship? One reason is the CAATSA or the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, signed into law in August 2017. The Act ensures only the President has final authority to waive sanctions on countries that engaged in ‘significant’ financial transaction with any of America’s adversaries, specifically Iran, North Korea, and Russia.

Read more: OPCW vote & South Asia: Why Pakistan backed Russia but India…

The act was meant to hurt the economies of and isolate these countries further. There’s little doubt that a $5 billion deal to purchase the S-400 is a ‘significant transaction’ that falls under the purview of this act. A White House National Security Council Spokesperson said after the deal was signed, “The (CAATSA presidential) waiver was narrow, intended to wean countries off Russian equipment and allow for things such as spare parts for previously purchased equipment.” Now that the deal is done, what options does the US have?

The US needs an economically and militarily strong India to counteract China’s ‘hegemonic’ ambitions. To be fair, China is arguably a generation ahead of India.

Will Washington impose sanctions on an ally that it will probably need in its competition against China? Trump’s rhetoric suggests that this option is not off the table. After all, he didn’t categorically deny it in the news briefing. The President of America is exactly known to be diplomatic when he needs to be. In a rally recently, he boasted about how he said to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom wouldn’t survive two weeks without American protection.

He has also promised to make Japan, NATO, and South Korea ‘pay up’ for relying on US forces to provide security. Given his behavior and the way he has talked about allies before, the fact that he says ‘India will find out’ if the US will impose sanctions on it, is not surprising. What else would one expect from Trump?

Read more: Pentagon official cautions India over buying Russian arms

The signing of the deal can prove to be very significant. For one, it shows India is not going to let go of its ties with Russia, despite US protests. Two, the US-India relationship is not as rock solid as Washington would like it to be. Both sides aren’t always on the same page and there are quite a few stumbling blocks in the relationship. Three, the S-400 is not compatible with the US-made weapons system.

It cannot be integrated with NATO’s missile defense system. The $5 billion deal almost appears to be a step back from LEMOA. Will New Delhi still look to the US for the latest in weapons technology? Will the US be willing to provide what India wants? The S-400 deal indicates these questions are unresolved. Like the American president says, we will ‘find out’.

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