Will India get a CAATSA exemption?

India has a legitimate case for CAATSA exemption. Negotiations for the purchase of five S-400s started years before CAATSA was enacted
Despite the remarkable progress made since — including the resuscitated Quad — the relationship remains fragile. (AP) PREMIUM
Despite the remarkable progress made since — including the resuscitated Quad — the relationship remains fragile. (AP)
Updated on Nov 19, 2021 01:47 PM IST
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ByYashwant Raj

Russia has said it has begun delivering the S-400 missile defence systems ordered by India, though it remains unclear if it has indeed been delivered. And that’s an important distinction to make because actual and physical delivery will trigger an American legal instrument that seeks to punish Russia by scaring away its military hardware clients, such as India, with the threat of secondary sanctions.

The United States (US) has used this 2017 legal measure, called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), only twice before. Both were over S-400 purchases and both, once again, were imposed by the administration of former President Donald Trump. The first was in 2018 and the target was China, which was not exactly a warning shot across the bow for other countries because of its adversarial relationship with the US. The second and more significant action came in 2020. This was against Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally that also hosts two US military bases. The message, this time, was clear, especially to New Delhi: If a NATO ally was not spared, partners such as India had no hope.

But India is neither China, which is a US adversary, nor Turkey, a NATO ally that has been pushing the limits of the bilateral relationship with testy behaviour. India is a strategic partner in America’s power tussle with China in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also a newly minted US partner that is struggling to overcome decades of distrust and suspicion of the US — memories persist of the US Navy Taskforce 74, a portion of the US Seventh Fleet, deployed against India in the 1971 war.

The dizzying frequency of bilateral and multilateral summits, top-level visits, officials exchanges and interactions, both in-person and virtual, is of recent vintage. It dates back to a 2005 joint statement issued after a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush. This meeting, and the statement that followed, spawned the civil nuclear deal, among other things, that has become the gold standard for all subsequent outcomes and developments in the relationship.

Despite the remarkable progress made since — including the resuscitated Quad — the relationship remains fragile. Senators Mark Warner (Democratic) and John Cornyn (Republican), the co-chairs of the India Caucus, warned, in a letter to President Joe Biden recently, that “possible upcoming sanctions against India could reverse or slow” the progress in the relationship. The question is, actually, can the relationship survive another round of sanction(s)? The last one following Pokhran II nuclear tests in 1998 was undone finally more than a decade later in 2010.

India has a legitimate case for CAATSA exemption. Negotiations for the purchase of five S-400s started years before CAATSA was enacted. A purchase agreement was signed in 2015 and a deal worth $4.5 billion was finalised in 2018. The US tried to stop it with counter offers of its rival Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAD) and Patriot systems. It was an offer that came too late.

But can India put something on the table to make an exemption from CAATSA more palatable for the Biden administration? India had blunted Trump’s constant complaints about the trade deficit by scaling up its oil and gas purchases from the US. It may want to dip into the same bag of tricks for something to take care of the S-400 affair.

The views expressed are personal

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021