With a Russian-made S-400 long range Surface to Air (SAM) missile system set to arrive in India by the end of this year, there remains speculation as to whether India will be sanctioned by the United States under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Under this act, the U.S. government has the authority to sanction countries that engage in “significant transactions” with North Korea, Iran, or Russia through the purchase of military equipment. The Indian government has yet to publicly comment, as New Delhi only recognizes United Nations sanctions, and not country specific sanctions, such as CAATSA. However, New Delhi is eligible for a waiver, a provision that was included in CAATSA.
Until now, the only item that has qualified as a “significant transaction” is the purchase of the S-400 SAM system, which has so far been purchased by China, Turkey, and India, out of which China and Turkey have been sanctioned under CAATSA. To understand the dynamics behind CAATSA, and to assess New Delhi’s chances at a waiver, we will further examine bilateral relations between the U.S. and each of these countries and the effect of CAATSA sanctions on China and Turkey.
China is an aspiring superpower. In its expansionist aspirations, it is flouting international maritime law in an attempt to acquire contested islands in the South China Sea, threatening Taiwan with provocative military drills, and has disputed land boundaries with India and Bhutan. It has violated human rights on multiple fronts, from clamping down on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong to the repression of the Tibetans as well as the ethnic Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region of western China. Beijing has violated intellectual property rights violations and stolen technology over the decades in order to bolster its capacity to manufacture cheap products that it sells globally. Both Beijing’s outlook and its pugnacious behavior are in contravention to Washington’s professed values.
China acquired the S-400 in order to fortify its superpower aspirations and was hit with sanctions under CAATSA in 2018. The sanctions, which were supposed to deter China from military purchases from Russia, have been futile. This is evident from the country’s recent purchase of Mi 171Sh combat helicopters from Russia, and the continued technological collaboration in defense between the two countries.
Turkey is a NATO member and, with the help of the U.S., has built a robust aerospace industry over the past half-century. Turkey owns over 270 F-16 fighters and has an assembly line that can manufacture and upgrade the aircraft. Thanks to its robust aerospace industry, Turkey is in the process of building its own fifth generation fighter, the TFX, which is scheduled to make its first flight in 2025. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a unique reason for purchasing the S-400 system: to defend himself from his own air force.
Turkey received the first consignment of S-400s in 2018, and immediately the U.S. cancelled a sale of F-35 fighters to Turkey. After a considerable delay, Trump imposed CAATSA sanctions on Turkey in December 2020, indicating that there is a degree of discretion in the government’s imposition of CAATSA sanctions. Despite CAATSA, Turkey is contemplating buying additional S-400 systems from Russia. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar earlier this year threatened that his country needs 200 fighters and if can’t get them from U.S., it will get them from Russia. As a result, Washington is now in talks with Ankara to sell additional F-16 fighters to Turkey.
India felt the need for a long-range SAM to counter the S-400 system acquired by China, and eventually settled on the purchase of a S-400 SAM system of its own. India has been in negotiations with Russia over the purchase since 2015, well before CAATSA came into law in 2017. On top of that, India had acquired weapons from the erstwhile Soviet Union for over half a century. Even today, over half the inventory of the Indian Army, Air Force, and Navy is Russian and therefore Indian forces rely on Moscow for spares and upgrades. New Delhi has repeatedly leased a nuclear submarine from Moscow since 1988, and Russia has helped India develop a nuclear submarine program. The main offensive weapon for all new Indian naval ships is the Brahmos supersonic missile, a joint venture with Russia. Discussions for building Russian helicopters, small arms, and ships in India are underway. However, since the end of the Cold War and increased rapprochement with the United States, India has been looking westwards, and has expressed an interest in purchasing deck-based fighters, submarines, fighters, tanks, etc., from countries other than Russia.
As compared to India’s long-time defense relationship with Russia, the India-U.S. relationship in defense is relatively nascent. While there has been extensive strategic engagement, including exercises, foundational agreements, designation of India as a Major Defense Partner, etc., the relationship in military hardware is yet to go beyond trade. India’s desire for the formation of joint ventures with and transfer of technology (ToT) from U.S. companies has so far borne little fruit. However, there are avenues of promise, such as the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative, under which co-development and co-production of future technologies are being worked out, and ToT subsequent to the signing of the Industrial Security Agreement, the nuances of which are being finalized.
Neither Washington nor New Delhi had envisioned a robust bilateral relationship in defense, and the current partnership has been nurtured through bipartisan support from both sides. The U.S. recognizes the importance of India, as a key strategic partner and a potential military force that can help provide stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific. Both nations share and espouse the idea of democracy and rule-based order as necessary to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, and both nations are undaunted by coercion. At this juncture, sanctioning India under CAATSA would prove catastrophic for this relationship.
Back in 2017, both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had predicted that the application of CAATSA sanctions would not achieve the intended purpose of deterring Russian arms sales. This has been proven true in the case of both China and Turkey. The same will happen if U.S. imposes CAATSA on India. It is therefore important for the U.S. to rethink the effectiveness of CAATSA, before it causes further damage to India-U.S. relations and benefits Russia, not just in terms of arms sales, but also in the realm of bilateral relations.