Why US senators are upset with Modi govt

US threat to sanction India over S-400 missile deal (File photo) 

By coincidence, the United States brandished the sword of sanctions at two of its allies this week — Germany and India. There are common threads in the two situations, although the threat to Germany can also be seen partly as a sop to Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz to lift his hold on the senate confirmation of William Burns as President Joe Biden’s CIA director.

On Thursday, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sternly warned the companies involved in the construction of the undersea Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia’s Baltic coast to Germany that they “should immediately abandon work” — or else, the Biden Administration will be sanctioning them.

Earlier, on Wednesday, the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee addressed a communication to the Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in the context of his current visit to India to “raise the administration’s opposition to India’s reportedly planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system, which threatens future US-India defence cooperation and puts India at risk of sanctions under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.” 

Prima facie, in neither case US national security interests are directly affected. Washington is threatening to impose so-called “secondary” or “extraterritorial” sanctions, which affect not only the country that have done things that are wrong in the US perceptions (Russia, in this case) but also two countries (Germany and India) that have done things entirely within their rights as sovereign states (doing business with Russia).

Such secondary sanctions would be in violation of international law. But the US insists that its domestic legislation is also applicable to foreign countries. Clearly, the US is threatening to interfere with Germany and India’s dealings with Russia as sovereign states. Washington has determined that whatever Germany or India does with Russia is the US’ business too. This calls attention to the inherent dangers of a strategic embrace with the superpower. 

The Biden Administration is looking to Europe to develop a coordinated policy to manage an emboldened China, and Germany has a lead role in it. Without German participation, the US lacks the means to block Chinese ambitions on issues like setting standards and regulating the cyber world. Similarly, for managing Vladimir Putin, German support is essential. 

When it comes to India, similar considerations are also at work — arguably, even more so, since China’s challenge is primarily to be met with in Asia for which the US needs to get embedded in the region. But through the past decade or more, China has systematically replaced the US as the number one trade and economic partner of the Asian countries.

Consequently, most Asian countries do not want to take sides between the US and China. As for India, it has deeply cherished its strategic autonomy, too. And India’s interests lie in bilaterally addressing its differences and disputes with China. India is wary of identifying with the US’ containment strategy against China. 

Admittedly, Germany and India’s respective relationships with Russia impact the US geostrategy. Although the policy class in Berlin and New Delhi attach importance to their relations with the US, they also seek strategic autonomy. The ties with Russia have not only long-term significance for them but also give them space to manoeuver in the prevailing complex international environment.

Both Germany and India have global ambitions and, indeed, they have the potential to be independent players in a multipolar world. Plainly put, the US’ transatlantic leadership on the one hand and the dynamics of the Quad platform in Asia-Pacific on the other hand require respectively that Germany and India roll back their ties with Russia. Washington apprehends that the Nord Stream 2 project and India’s procurement of the S-400 missile system from Russia will significantly boost Germany and India’s relations with Russia and create long-term interdependencies that exclude the US. 

Of course, there is also a business angle. The US eyes Germany as  a potentially big market for its shale gas exports. The Nord Stream 2 aims to supply 55 bcm of Russian gas annually to Germany with a potential to carry bigger volume in future. Similarly, the S-400 missile system strengthens Russia’s defence ties with India and also gives an added advantage to Moscow to partner with the Indian Air Force. Russia is far more open than the US to sharing advanced military technology with India and to collaborate in the co-production of weaponry. 

Without doubt, the US aspires to replace Russia as India’s number one arms supplier. The US expectation is that under the concept of ‘interoperability’, India can be steadily weaned away as a defence partner from the Russian orbit. Indeed, the US is adept at using the mil-to-mil relationships with partner countries to influence their foreign policies. 

All things considered, therefore, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s letter to Austin signals a certain sense of disappointment in the Beltway that India is nowhere near willing to jettison its strategic autonomy and align with the US, the border tensions with China in the recent past notwithstanding. In fact, from the US perspective, there are disconcerting signs that the tensions in India-China relations may even be showing signs of easing, thanks to sustained bilateral talks at multiple levels between the two neighbours. 

Three things need to be noted here. First, the US senate foreign relations committee has waded into the US-Indian relationship and expressed its unhappiness soon after the first-ever summit meeting of the Quad on March 12, which in the first place took place at the initiative of President Biden. Second, it is a fact of US diplomatic history that the senate foreign relations committee makes such belligerent “bipartisan” moves affecting the US’ relations with an important foreign country only with the prior knowledge and concurrence — or at the very least the acquiescence — of the Administration at an informal level.

Third, in the present case, the US senators have launched a wide-ranging diatribe against the Modi government’s internal policies as well. They even shed crocodile tears over the farmers’ agitation. Now, this is rank hypocrisy, since in reality, the Biden administration is eager to drive India’s neoliberal economic reforms forward, and it supports the new agricultural laws, viewing all this through a strategic lens. 

As a British commentator pointed out recently, “The three agriculture reform laws passed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in September… promise a bonanza for American farmers, the kind the previous White House administration strived to carve out with China. This undoubtedly would provide the underbelly of any future India-US trade agreement, allow Biden to pitch himself as providing for American jobs and farmers first.” 

Herein lies the paradox. The US cannot afford to openly state what is on its mind that rankles. Instead, the senators have brought in the Modi’s government’s internal policies and the S-400 missile deal with Russia to bring pressure on India. The Pentagon’s minimal expectation will be that the Indian government at the very least would try to appease Austin by placing some big orders with American arms vendors who may be accompanying him. Austin previously served as board member in Raytheon. Blinken also ran a consultancy firm lobbying for big arms manufacturers. Presumably, a tradeoff with them is always possible. 

Suffice to say, President Joe Biden had given an impression that his era would be “different”. He held out a raft of promises that diplomacy is back at the centre of US foreign policy. By doing so, Biden won enormous credit with world capitals. Yet, before the Biden presidency reaches the 100-day mark, the new administration is busy weaponising sanctions and acting like a bully on the world stage.