Of Waivers, Exceptions and Exemptions

An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, paving the way for a CAATSA waiver to India for its purchase of the S-400 air and missile defense system from Russia. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is a U.S. federal law that seeks to sanction states engaging in significant military cooperation with Russia, Iran and North Korea. The NDAA allows the President to waive CAATSA sanctions if the transfers are below 15 million USD. However, the S-400 related defense purchases go beyond the President’s authority.

The applicability of CAATSA on India’s purchase of the S-400 remains to be seen and how the U.S. will make way for yet another waiver to India when it has already sanctioned China and Turkey for the same. It was expected that the U.S. would follow the same procedures for India as well. The waiver, if given, will put the U.S. under the spotlight for practicing double standards even among its allies and partners. Turkey, a NATO ally, was sanctioned, while exceptions are sought for India that does not even appreciate calling its relationship an alliance. It remains a strategic U.S. partner and a pivotal country in containing China.

Non-extension of a waiver to India may reset the relationship to post-1998 levels where the U.S. placed India under sanctions after the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests. Consequently, India had suspended bilateral naval exercises with the U.S., deepened its partnership with Russia and reduced the momentum of its cooperation with America. Given that the security orientation of the U.S. towards the region has significantly changed to what it was back in 1998 and also with India now being labeled as its ‘Major Defense Partner’, it has increasingly become difficult for the U.S. to take a decision on sanctioning India under CAATSA as it will severely damage U.S. interests in the region. During the 2+2 Ministerial Level Dialogue held in April 22, the Biden administration reiterated once again that the U.S. had not yet decided to grant India a waiver.

Military cooperation between Russia and India dates back to the Soviet era; a major chunk of India’s military equipment is of Russian origin. On the other hand, the Indo-U.S. defense relations essentially date back to post-2001. The U.S., therefore, is not in a position to force India to step back from the S-400 deal. Similarly, CAATSA sanctions are unlikely to prevent India from acquiring the S-400. In fact, India has already received the first regiment of S-400 (out of a total of five), which is being deployed in the Punjab sector to cater for aerial threats emanating both from China and Pakistan. In addition to being America’s Major Defense Partner, India is now a member of Quad also – an important ally in the region for the U.S. that could challenge China. The amendment to the NDAA also highlights this factor that CAATSA waiver will help deter aggressors like China.

The amendment is presented as ‘the most significant piece of legislation for US-India relations’ to have come out of Congress since the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal of 2005. Owing to geo-strategic interests, the U.S. obliged India to sign a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2005 and facilitated a unique NSG waiver, despite New Delhi’s proliferation record and American non-proliferation obligations. American exceptionalism paved India’s way for sixteen more civil nuclear cooperation agreements with several countries, which have enabled it to free up its domestic uranium for a weapons program. In a hope that India will do its bidding in containing China, U.S. exceptionalism has enabled India to gain access to civil nuclear technology, an improved and more acceptable nuclear status and strategic alignment with the West. The negative impact of this exceptionalism on the India-Pakistan strategic stability equation is an area that is given minimal consideration among U.S. officials and policy makers. 

The ever-growing Indo-U.S. strategic partnership and increasing U.S. dependence on India to counter China makes it unlikely that the U.S. will sanction India under CAATSA. There appears to be an understanding in the U.S. at the government level that CAATSA sanctions will risk the strategic partnership and U.S. interests in the region. The U.S. may waive sanctions on India because of the latter’s significance against China; however, such a move will not be taken positively with its NATO ally, Turkey, where the relationship is already suffering. The waiver can also prompt states like the UAE and Qatar to pursue S-400 without the fear of sanctions under CAATSA.

The recent Indian position over Russia-Ukraine war should be instructive for the U.S. legislatures who favour appeasing India in pursuit of their own strategic objectives. Despite its strategic alignment with the U.S. and the West, India chose an ‘independent foreign policy.’ India’s burgeoning trade with China should be an indicator for the Chinese containment camp that India would not put others’ interests before its own.

Of Waivers, Exceptions and Exemptions

About Tanzeela Khalil 9 Articles
Tanzeela Khalil is a Visiting Fellow at Atlantic Council, Washington DC. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the policy of her organization in any way.

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