S-400 deal may shatter India’s Indo-Pacific advantage (Sunday Guardian)
By M D Nalapat
Several other purchases, such as the planned acquisition of another Akula-class nuclear submarine, may also attract US sanctions. But would the Trump administration be willing to give India access to nuclear submarines, air defence systems, etc? According to senior officials spoken to, the reply is in the affirmative.
Washington: In the 1950s, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles looked at the world in two tones: dark and light. Those formally allied with the United States were in the well-lit space, while the others belonged to dark corners or should be sent there. During 1939-45, Muslim League supremo M.A. Jinnah skilfully cultivated Allied policymakers by placing himself at their service during wartime, in contrast to Mahatma Gandhi, who asked the British first to leave the country before their cause (of defeating Japan and Germany) could be considered by the Congress Party leadership. Jinnah’s support for the Allied cause proved crucial in enabling him to implement the measure which has done the greatest harm to Muslims across the subcontinent, which was the partition of India on the grounds of religion. After freedom was secured on 14-15 August 1947, Governor-General Jinnah of Pakistan placed his country firmly in the western camp, in contrast to Jawaharlal Nehru, who took a position of such nuance that his preferences became opaque. The Eisenhower administration responded by flooding Pakistan with US weaponry and assistance. The hesitant, often elliptical, Indian requests for similar assistance were ignored on the grounds that Pakistan was now a “treaty ally”, which India declined to be. Then as now, backing even the truncated post-1947 India would have generated greater geopolitical dividends for the US than sacrificing Delhi’s goodwill through pandering to Rawalpindi, but it took decades—until the second term of President George W. Bush more than a half-century later—that this truth began to significantly seep into the policy processes of the US government. Although the dominance of the Clinton cohort in Barack Obama’s first term dampened moves towards a close relationship between the US and India, by the close of his second term, guided by Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, substantial progress had been made towards making India a favoured recipient of US weaponry and technology, a policy that has been continued by Donald J. Trump, who has engineered a paradigm shift in US strategic thought through an embrace of the Indo-Pacific as the primary security-related theatre of interest for his administration. In such a strategy, India plays a role next only to that of the US itself.
That Trump seeks to eliminate competition to the US and its perceived interests by means fair or otherwise has not been secret. Just as a forced decline in petroproduct exports from Iran would boost sales of US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar (not to mention the US itself), reducing Russia’s sales of advanced weaponry would remove a formidable competitor to US rivals such as Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics. It was India whose orders rescued much of Russia’s defence-industrial complex from extinction in the 1990s, and the country remains the top buyer of Russian defence systems. On its part, Moscow has opened the store to India, and has given access even to nuclear submarines, besides offering the S-400 air defence system. This is at present superior to any technology on offer by the US or by any other country. The problem is that its installation would entail the permanent stationing of Russian personnel to take care of maintenance as well as segments of operation of the air defence system. Practically every movement across Indian airspace would be registered by the system, and the overall performance parameters of the aircraft flying overhead would become known to the Russian side, including any advanced military aircraft (such as the F-35) that the US may supply to India. According to a senior US Air Force technical expert, the purchase of the S-400 system would entail “long-term reliance on Russian technological and logistical support to an intractable level”. He added that “when the S-400 surface-to-air missile system is installed, Russia will know the intimate details of everything happening over India’s skies”. This would not have been a problem until the close of the Cold War. Till the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, GHQ Rawalpindi’s “iron” ally China and the Soviet Union were foes. Now, Moscow has become the most important military and civilian ally of Beijing, which remains tethered to Islamabad in its South Asia orientation. This being the case, allowing Moscow to access every byte of significant defence-related data has a different connotation than during the Cold War period. Apart from India, another country in talks with Moscow about the purchase of the S-400 system is Turkey. Should such a sale go through, it would mark the beginning of a process that would end with Ankara’s exit from NATO. In the case of India, going ahead with the S-400 purchase would foreclose any high-octane defence cooperation between India and the US in an era when Washington is on the cusp of unveiling its Indo-Pacific strategy at the forthcoming Shangri-la dialogue, a strategy where India has the pride of place as the key partner of the United States.
INDIA AS ANCHOR ALLY
In the 1950s, it was the US side that pushed India towards the USSR as the primary (and for a considerable period, the only) defence partner. In 2019, it will be India (through the purchase of the S-400 system) that would select Moscow over Washington as the anchor ally in matters of national defence, bypassing the reality of the Moscow-Beijing military alliance that is gaining traction by the day as a force countering the US in theatres across the globe, including most recently in Venezuela. Lockheed Martin is at present willing to transfer its entire F-16 assembly line to India, and such a move would soon be followed by the transfer of the F-35 to India, an aircraft that is competitive in price and performance with those on offer by France, the European consortium and Russia. Given India’s manpower and technical skills, the country could emerge as a global manufacturing hub of military aircraft, followed by civilian assembly, within the term of a government. This is the vista presented by the Lockheed offer, and which has been placed at risk by the impending purchase of the S-400 air defence system from Russia, a country that has become toxic in the US Capitol, a location that has substantial goodwill at present for India. Indeed, there is a strong undercurrent of support for a robust security and defence relationship between India and the US, and should such a moment be seized, among the early harvests would be the formal designation of India by the US Congress as a US ally on the same footing as NATO. How would the use of the S-400 system by India impact such a move? According to a senior official close to President Trump, “concerns over the S-400 stem from intelligence collection. Any US jet could be tracked by the system, thereby helping the Russians better understand US manoeuvres, flight patterns and operations”. This is not merely an academic issue in the context of the rising possibility of the US getting engaged in combat with the Sino-Russian alliance in theatres such as the Korean peninsula or the Taiwan straits, besides locations such as the Baltics, Iran and Venezuela. Over the decades, India has developed an overpowering degree of reliance on Russian military hardware at the same time that Beijing and Moscow have seen their military-to-military ties develop, such that Moscow is now engaged with Islamabad in a manner closer than at any period since Tashkent in 1966, when Moscow forced India to make concessions such as the return of the Haji Pir pass to Pakistan in the belief that doing so would secure Rawalpindi’s support for the USSR’s friends in Afghanistan.
Getting an exemption from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) in the S-400 would be a difficult ask for Delhi from a Washington where lawmakers are discussing Russia in hostile tones every session. Several other purchases, such as the planned acquisition of another Akula-class nuclear submarine, may also attract sanctions under CAATSA. But would the Trump administration be willing to give India access to nuclear submarines, air defence systems, aircraft carriers and other high-end defence equipment? According to senior officials spoken to, the reply is in the affirmative. They claim that as yet, the Indian side has not made a formal request for such transfers. “A senior Indian official may informally ask (the US side) about availability, but thereafter fail to follow up by giving a formal request. Unless such a request gets made, the inter-agency process required to clear such transfers cannot get activated”, a top official claimed, adding that “the mood on both Capitol Hill as well as in the White House is in favour of ensuring that India be given the means to defend democracy in Asia”. Another high official suggested a direct conversation about such specifics between the US President and the Prime Minister of India “to get the process onto the fast track”, warning that “informal soundings are not taken seriously in DC unless followed up through paperwork”.
At the forthcoming Shangri-la dialogue, the US is expected to unveil its Indo-Pacific strategy. India would be the keystone in that particular arch of defence and security, but this would depend on the choices made (or avoided) by policymakers in the Lutyens Zone, whose propensity for formulating policies that fritter away advantages for India have by now become the stuff of global conversation.