The RSTV discussions of ‘The Big Picture’ is very relevant from a UPSC civil services exam point of view. In this article one can understand the importance of CAATSA in the backdrop of S-400 Missile Defence System purchased by India from Russia, India’s backdoor diplomacy with Washington, the waiver for India and its meaning ,

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Anchor: Frank Rausan Pereira
Speakers: Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Diplomat; K.V. Prasad, Associate Editor, The Tribune; Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Diplomat; Alok Bansal, Director, India Foundation

Importance of this Episode

  1. A recent US Congressional conference report paved the path for a waiver to countries such as India from the punitive Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA.
  2. This punitive act was signed reluctantly by President Donald Trump in August 2017 and forced his administration to impose sanctions on any country carrying out significant defence and energy trade with sanctioned entities in North Korea, Iran and Russia.
  3. The Senate and House Armed Services Committee in a joint conference report to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)-2019 provided a modified waiver to section 231 of CAATSA.  
  4. As pointed out by a media release by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the proposed modified waiver requires presidential certifications designed to protect US alliances, military operations, and sensitive technology.
  5. This edition of ‘The Big Picture’ aims to analyse the CAATSA waiver for India.

Analysis by the Experts

What is CAATSA?

(Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Diplomat weighed in with his points here.)

  1. CAATSA is the law that the US Congress had put into position last year (2017), this was done in August 2017. This law came into effect in January 2018. This is an act by the Congress, thus the President of the United States of America doesn’t have too much of authority over it. Thus, if the President of the United States wanted to give some waivers to some countries, or to some entities, then the possibilities were very limited. Since the Congress was convinced that Russia had interfered, and had meddled in the US Presidential Elections in 2016, meant that some actions should be taken against it so that it would hurt those agencies and organizations which had meddled in the US elections.
  2. Further, it meant that the countries who would be dealing with those entities would also be put under sanction.  Now, the question to ask here is: Where does India come into the picture? Well, India comes into the picture as she is looking at importing at least 5 systems of the S-400 ballistic defence system which would be costing anything between 4-5 Billion dollars. Thus, discussions have been going on as far as this is concerned, and in the next annual summit that is due to take place between India and Russia in October 2018, it is expected that this agreement would be signed. Thus, basically, the act would have acted against the possibility of India going and buying this defence system for itself, and India had said that this is something very critical and crucial as far as our own security was concerned.
  3. As a result, Jim Mattis Secretary of Defense, and Mike Pompeo, United States Secretary of State, decided to change the provisions a bit in an effort to make it possible for India to also be able to buy these systems, without having the impact of sanctions.

Why the Waiver for India and for a Couple of Other Countries?

(K.V. Prasad, Associate Editor, The Tribune weighed in with his arguments here.)

  1. The U.S. does realize that the amount of trade that India does with the United States, especially with respect to the Military Industrial Complex is quite high. The figures over the last 3 years suggest that the deals with America surpass that with the Russians.
  2. Secondly, James Mattis, the Secretary of Defence had worked very hard over the last few months in so far as trying to reach out to the members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee to see how best this deal could go through because they (the U.S.) do realize that pushing away India would not really help.
  3. The U.S. has more interests with India than just these five S-400 ballistic defence systems. Although there is a Kamov helicopter deal that is still in the pipeline, but that notwithstanding, the U.S. is engaged with India on many other fronts.

What does the Waiver Mean for India?
(Alok Bansal, Director, India Foundation weighed in with his arguments here.)

  1. At this point in time, the waiver would affect the S-400 which pertains to the deal between  India and Russia. Further, it is important to point out that CAATSA is not merely Russia specific. The act attempts to counter America’s adversaries specific to three countries namely, North Korea, Iran and Russia.
  2. Further, when it comes to Russia, the charge held against Russia is not just restricted to Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. Presidential elections, but it also takes into account Russian intervention in Ukraine and Russia’s intervention in Syria. The point in the CAATSA which affects India is the ‘transactions with Russian defence or intelligence sector’. The act also lists Russian citizens who are close and who are High Net-worth Individuals (HNI’s) with proximity to Putin.
  3. India would ideally want a waiver where there is no restriction in so far as her negotiations with Russia are concerned. Further, the Indian Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman clearly mentioned that India has been dealing with Russia for decades. She in fact went further to say that the CAATSA is not a UN act.  In the wake of the CAATSA act, Trump has been forced to take a slightly hawkish line on Russia.
  4. From India’s viewpoint, the US-Russia bonhomie which Trump has been propagating would ideally be the best thing that would work for us. India has a large amount of defence equipment that is sourced from Russia, and even if India doesn’t go with the S-400, the maintenance of the existing defence equipment from Russia would itself require a continuous supply of spares; further a lot of our equipment goes abroad for mid-life upgrades, etc.  From the Army, Navy and Air force, it is the Air force that stands out as we have Sukhois,  MiG -29’s, and  MiG’s of various variants. Within the Navy, we have INS Chakra which is a nuclear submarine on lease. Thus, all these equipment need certain assistance from Russia to maintain them.
  5. Thus from India’s point of view, a status quo ante as it has been going on would be best suited. In pursuing her strategic autonomy, India has at least managed to convince the administration in the U.S. that she should be permitted to continue as it is. Further, we must point out that the Indian lobby, and her diaspora is becoming stronger in the U.S. by each passing day, and that India needs to come up with a full-fledged game plan so that she can get a complete waiver on the CAATSA.

Talking about the Indian lobby in the United States, does the CAATSA Waiver Mean that India’s Backdoor Diplomacy is Working?

(Sheel Kant Sharma, Former Diplomat, weighed in with his arguments here)

  1. Well, it is a vindication of the point that the Indian side has been maintaining over the last 15-20 years- India has had the bipartisan support of both U.S. and Russia, thus India is good for both the parties. Thus, when it comes to the Congress, both the Republicans and the Democrats are for India. Thus, this armed services committee has now recommended it to the Congress, thus the next step would be the Congressional approval of this carve-out or waiver that India is seeking to achieve from the CAATSA act. Further, when we look at the last 2-3 years, it was the Congress that has been acting on Russia- because of various factors not limited to the US Presidential elections alone.
  2. Further, if India succeeds in getting this carve-out, then it shows that India’s own strategic dimension is acceptable to the Americans and the fact that the weakening of India (as it has been reported in the newspapers) is not good for American strategy.  It is the strategic imperative of the Indo-Pacific region that countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, are secure and stable. Thus the demand for weapon systems for these countries is actually coming from their security requirements.
  3. So can we say that the thrust going forward would be the Indo-Pacific?  Well, there are Congressional stalwarts who still maintain that perspective.  We have some variations in the last few years because of the predilections of President Trump with issues concerning trade wars, etc. Further, we need to point out that we have been getting our offensive systems from Russia be it in the Navy or the Air force, but what we are getting now from the U.S. are systems such as surveillance, and if the deal concerning the armed drones from the U.S. is agreed, then that would mean that it would be the first time that the U.S. would part with an attack system. Thus, for a country as large as India, our requirements include both- offensive systems as well as those used purely for defence.
  4. Secretary Mattis has been more understanding of India in the meetings that have been conducted so far. Even about Iran for instance and the Chabahar port, there is a certain measure of understanding in the U.S. system that they understand India’s concerns (this was mentioned by the previous Secretary of State). However, John Bolton continues to be hard on Iran.

U.S. Secreatry Mattis said that “any U.S. sanctions on India would have put the relationship back at least a decade if not more”, and the senators listened to him. Thus, what does this tell us about India-US ties?

(Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Diplomat weighed in with his arguments here.)

  1. When we rewind back to the beginning of the second term of President George Bush, who sent his then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who came in February of 2005 and said that the main objective of the United States is to ensure the emergence of India as a major global power, and it is felt that as things have evolved and particularly now with the rise of China and its aggressiveness and assertiveness in the South China Sea and as far as the Belt and Road Initiative is concerned, there are a number of areas where the United States feels that it has to contend with China and that it has to confront China, and as far as the United States is concerned, there is no other partner for the United States better than India that can stand along with it.
  2. Thus, it is felt that it is in the interest of the United States itself that it should ensure that India keeps on growing both economically, militarily, and strategically. India is very likely to get a carve-out on both Chabahar and on the import of oil from Iran. We are likely to get the carve-out on Chabahar because it is in the interest of the United States that India is able to reach Afghanistan to promote its security, its stability and its economic prosperity.
  3. We have already started sending wheat to Afghanistan, and we can also use this route to reach out to the Central Asian countries. Thus, the United States realizes that it needs to work together with India to make sure that there is a sort of balance.  

Is this Waiver now a Boost for India-US ties?

(K.V. Prasad, Associate Editor, The Tribune weighed in with his arguments here.)

  1. Well there has been a bit of a downward dip, but the fact remains that India enjoys a bipartisan support in the U.S. But the mood in Capitol Hill is not exactly very friendly towards Russia even now.
  2. Plus with the mid-term elections due in the U.S. in November, and the statement by President Trump himself who thinks that the Russians will this time support the democrats, there is a lot of churning that is happening in the U.S. currently. Although India-US ties have been strong, but under President Trump, the ties have been transactional, rather than strategic.

Is the Strategic Partnership Between India and the US back on Track Now?

(Alok Bansal, Director, India Foundation weighed in with his arguments here.)

  1. There is reason to believe so. This is because even the 2+2 meet is scheduled to take place on the 6th of September. The deferment of the 2+2 meet was itself a little bit of a setback, whatever may have been the reasons. The media was speculating that this was actually some kind of a downturn that had resulted in the deferment of the meeting. But currently, we seem to be back on track.
  2. Our dependence on Iran is not so much based on just oil imports. Although Iran is India’s second largest source of oil imports, it is still considerably lower than what we import from Iraq. But about 10 years back, Iran was still the second largest source of oil imports for India and Saudi Arabia was the largest source of oil imports. Currently, Saudi Arabia, although having a huge production capacity has now dipped to number 3. Iran subsidizes its oil to India by varying its freight charges and insurance rates- thus one would have to see how this strategic partnership goes further.

Concluding Remarks

  1. The India-US relationship never went off track. They have always been on track and the thinking that the 2+2 postponement means that there is declining interest as far as the US is concerned is essentially a build-up of the media and that it is factually inaccurate. There are evidences to suggest the same as well- for example: the narrative around the Indo-Pacific, the change of the Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific, the restart of the Quad deliberations amongst the officials of the four member countries, the US South-Asia Strategy, the pressure that has been put on Pakistan all works towards what India has been asking.
  2. With respect to the impending 2+2 dialogue scheduled for the 6th of September 2018, one would assume that the talks would be strategic in nature- this is because of the very format of the dialogue itself. Secondly, the confluence of our interests, both in matters of external affairs as well as in matters of defence is very much the agenda, and we have found over the last two years now (ever since the Trump administration assumed office), that on certain areas where we have to take a position, we have explained it very clearly. Thirdly, there are many things on the agenda of this meeting- such as the important weapon systems; and there are certain areas in advanced technologies where India and the US should now push forward the defence technology trade initiative. This is the time now when we have strong leaderships, thus both countries must push forward.
  3. The US Congressional Conference report has said that India would have to meet two conditions: 1) India has to significantly reduce its dependence on Russia, and 2) India has to significantly increase its cooperation with the United States. This is already being done. We should observe the way the relations between the United States and India have been evolving and emerging- for instance if we were to look just at defence cooperation, without even looking at the DTTI (Defence Trade and Technology Initiative), just about 5 years ago, we were importing about 2.4% of our defence requirements from the United States, and today it has increased to about 15%. Our orders with them are to the tune of 16 Billion dollars. Thus, as far as the first condition is concerned, 5 years ago, India’s dependence on Russia was to the tune of 79% of our defence imports and today, it is just about 62%, thus, the engagement with the United States has increased very significantly and it is continuing to grow, whereas that with Russia has come down significantly. Thus, India is meeting these conditions very well, and in addition to that, there is the entire strategic element in the bilateral relationship.
  4. In conclusion, we need to note that the Indian diaspora has come of age. The rise of the Indian diaspora in the United States will ensure, whether we like it or not that the Indo-US relations will keep rising. Currently, President Trump is speaking Israel’s language as far as Iran is concerned. Today it is believed that the Indian diaspora is as powerful as the Jewish diaspora if not more powerful and it is felt that the US would support India’s cause.
  5. As far as Indo-US cooperation is concerned, the relationship is growing. But, as far as India-Russia relationship is concerned, it is indeed coming down in terms of percentages. But Indian dependence on Russia as far as the defence sector is concerned would remain at least for a decade if not more.

Further Reading

UPSC aspirants are advised to read the latest available press-releases available on the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) website.  These press releases are usually accompanied by a brief historical background which helps during answer writing. Over and above these official press releases, occasionally, it is advisable for students to go through articles published by the IDSA as well.


The above details would help candidates prepare for UPSC 2020.

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