US-India relations from the beginning of the 21st Century have reached new heights with renewed gusto leading to a robust political and defence relationship. Both have signed agreements which makes India at par with any formal ally as far as defence cooperation is concerned. The impression, an observer might get is that India is taking sides and abandoning its non-alignment principles as India’s national security is threatened through nibbling of territory on the eastern borders and countering state sponsored terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.
As India continues to grow, the threat on its borders will continue to grow, which has led to India procuring and developing modern weapons and defence systems to deter the growing threats on its borders. The U.S has not made any comments on India’s defence budget unlike its European allies who were accused of not increasing their defence budget and put burden on NATO, but, the U.S does have a problem with where India buys its weapons from, which is evident from the threat of sanctions India might face if it goes ahead with decision to buy the Russian S-400 missile system which although not battle tested is better as far as range and setup is concerned compared to its competition.
The U.S reaction to India buying S-400 from Russia can be compared to a strikingly similar reaction back in the 1960s when India went ahead and bought the MiG 21 supersonic jet from the Soviet Union after the Sino-Indian war which made India look for options beyond the British, who were the primary defence supplier at the time. The reaction at the time was, of course, one of shock and surprise to the west, who like now, in those times saw India as a balance to China but in line with Pax Britannica. The U.K of course, today does not hold the same sway in India as it did for a couple of decades after India’s independence while also ceding ground to American and Soviet influence as the Cold War progressed. However, the U.S has stood the test of time and is still a superpower while facing economic and military challenges from China and still perceives Russia as a geopolitical threat. The time might be different, but the threat to both US and India remains the same, but US concerns, like the threat, about buying India buying from Russia hasn’t changed either.
The threat of sanctions now is not that different from the consideration in the 1960s to stop aid from the US to help facilitate India’s third five–year plan which would have led to a collapse of the Indian economy. The Chinese threat to U.S hegemony in Asia then, and today, the world should ideally be the reason for the U.S to not really push India to take hard decisions which might undermine all the progress the bilateral relationship has made and might affect the future U.S plans for enhancing defence and security cooperation with India . The Senate Foreign Relations Committee cut 25 percent from India’s aid package in the 1960s, and now, the possibility of sanctions after buying S-400 shows the U.S near stubbornness not to understand India’s security predicament.
There is although a slight change of how the west responded at the time and how the U.S is responding now as this time an alternative has been offered. India had exhausted all options in the 1960s to procure western supersonic jets because of political and financial reasons. The U.S based F-104 Starfighter was expensive and complicated to manufacture compared to its Soviet counterpart. The U.S, today in response to India buying S-400 has offered to sell the Patriot missiles and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense(THAAD). The U.S might have offered its top of the line air defence equipment but its relatively more expensive as was the case with the F-104 Starfighter. This is not to say that India hasn’t bought military equipment from the U.S , India recently bought the National Surface to Air Missile System-2 (NASAMS-2) which will act as a robust air defence against any attack on New Delhi along with a host of other military equipment including heavy lifting helicopters and aircrafts which India has deployed in its forward base.
In the light of both countries signing Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which ensures India and the U.S millitaries communicating through high end encrypted data and share satellite data the U.S argues in response to India’s purchase of S-400 that it would affect the interoperability between the two armed forces, an argument which the U.S has been making against Turkey buying the same air defence system and retaliating by blocking F-35 equipment even when it is an industrial partner.
The U.S Senate passed Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) primarily targeting Iran, North Korea, and Russia without any waiver provisions which makes the decision to buy the air defence system a diplomatic and militarily complicated proposition for India. This is not to say that relations have soured over this issue as the U.S has helped India on various occasions including the endorsement of its inclusion as a permanent member of the UNSC, attesting India’s entry into NSG among many important progressive stances beneficial for India on the world stage. The S-400 purchase though is also not the only issue which thaws the now rapidly growing relationship as India is also facing the extended brunt of tariffs imposed by the U.S along with not granting waivers to countries which were dependent on Iranian oil due to the renewed unilateral sanctions with a host of other problems which mars the relationship.
The Indo-US relationship is now too big to go into a cryogenic state as it did after Kennedy’s death in 1963 until the advent of the 21st century and enhanced after 9/11. There is no doubt that the relationship has been beneficial for India which was the case in the post–independence years until Kennedy was assassinated and later, the U.S got heavily involved and invested in conflicts in South East Asia.
The U.S now after making so much progress with India bilaterally should not jeopardise relations with India as it is its second largest arms supplier and should be less threatening and accept the deals made by India and understand that non-alignment is not a principle but contextual , and at the time the recent aggression on India’s western borders by Pakistan and the Doklam stand-off in 2017 has made India look for viable, affordable and analyse life-cycle costs of the new arms it imports. Finally, the U.S should realise, rather what it should have realised when India bought the MiG’s from the Soviets that for India to even out China it has to have strategic autonomy which it expects from major powers due to the situation on its borders which for years now has been nothing less than a powder keg.
The U.S foreign policy has been a banquet of paradoxical discreets. China was the U.S’ best partner for over two decades during the cold war. The situation has turned over its head at the time turn of 21st Century. The foreign policy behavious has one de jure constant, U.S national interest. In a similar temper, India’s foreign policy will be changed by its own interests. The U.S will have to learn to concede to India’s exigencies, sooner the better.