Questions continue to swirl about whether the US will go through with its repeated threats to impose CAATSA sanctions against India to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense systems. US President Joe Biden’s nominee for Coordinator for Sanctions Policy, James O’Brien, was asked about precisely that during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday. According to reports, he responded in the following way:
“The administration has made clear that it is discouraging India from proceeding with the acquisitions of Russian equipment, and there are important geostrategic considerations, particularly with [unintelligible] relationship to China. So, I think we have to look at what the balance is. And, of course, India’s got some decisions in front of it, so it would be premature to say more. But this is something I look forward to working with you and other interested members.”
This hints that the issue still hasn’t been decided upon by the US State Department, concluding that American diplomats are still split over it. One faction believes that imposing even symbolic sanctions is required in order to show that their country’s threats still have some credibility, while the other thinks that doing even that would risk pushing India even further away from the Quad. The two schools of thought on this issue will now be briefly touched upon a bit more in detail.
The US imposed very soft sanctions on Turkey for its identical acquisition of such Russian systems, but that country’s a NATO ally, so it was more symbolically significant that Ankara went through with that air defense deal, hence the need for Washington to respond in some tangible way. India, however, isn’t a US treaty ally and therefore has no such informal obligations to not purchase arms from one of the countries that America officially regards as its “peer competitor”.
The argument can be made that waiving sanctions on that basis alone is a credible enough reason to do so without being accused of applying double standards towards Turkey since their formal relationship with the US is so different. Furthermore, as O’Brien implied, the US indirectly gains by having India equip itself with high-quality and state-of-the-art air defense systems despite them being supplied by Russia since they’ll nevertheless still be put to partial use in bolstering that country’s defenses vis-à-vis China.
“Sanctioning India, however symbolically, would be the latest counterproductive move that America can do towards that country following similar such moves over the past 18 months. Examples of this include its failure to fully support its South Asian Quad partner during 2020’s Galwan River Valley clashes with China, its violation of its exclusive economic zone early last year, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and its secret assembling of the AUKUS anti-Chinese alliance behind New Delhi’s back. All of this disrespected India and showed that America doesn’t treat it as an equal partner. Sanctioning that country would be the latest development in this disastrous sequence of events for their relationship.”
Waving the CAATSA sanctions stick against India at this very sensitive time in their strategic relationship risks pushing that country even further away from the US and closer towards its much more reliable decades-long Russian ally’s embrace, which is contrary to American interests in the New Cold War. For as uncomfortable as the optics maybe, the US should seriously consider waiving its sanctions for the so-called “greater good” as its strategists understand it to be.
India is much too important of a partner for the US to continue mistreating as a vassal state by even publicly considering the imposition of sanctions against it for that country’s independent advancement of its national security interests. The only way that the Indian-American Strategic Partnership that’s recently been built over less than the past decade can sustainably survive is if the US finally starts treating India as an equal Great Power with the respect that it deserves.
O’Brien seems to be implying that that’s precisely what he’d seek to do if he’s successfully confirmed to his post, which could save their bilateral relations from further deteriorating. Even so, the US won’t be able to reverse the grand strategic outcome of last month’s visit by President Putin to India where the two sides agreed to a whopping 99-paragraph strategic partnership declaration that strongly hints at their shared desire to jointly assemble a new Non-Aligned Movement (“Neo-NAM”).
That was the direct result of Indian strategists realizing that they urgently needed to recalibrate their multi-alignment policy in the face of the unprecedented disrespect shown to their proud civilization-state by their new American partner over the past 18 months. It likely wouldn’t have happened had the US simply treated India as an equal Great Power with the respect that it deserved all along. Nevertheless, it would be a step towards repairing their damaged ties if the US waives its sanctions.