The future of US-Indian relations depends on New Delhi’s S-400 decision
India has long wanted to turn Russia and China against each other in order to divide and rule them both
Last week I wrote about the three factors that will shape the future of US-Pakistani relations, and this week I’m focusing on the single most important one that will shape US-Indian relations: New Delhi’s S-400 decision. Reuters exclusively reported last week citing unnamed sources that the US won’t provide a CAATSA sanctions waiver for India’s planned S-400 purchase from Russia. This followed Indian Defence Ministry sources announcing that nearly 100 officers and airmen will travel to Russia later this month for training and maintenance of those systems according to Sputnik. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs had earlier emphasised that it “follows an independent foreign policy” in response to previous US sanctions threats.
It’s therefore clear that the future of US-Indian relations will be greatly determined by whether India goes through with its planned S-400 purchase and if the US decides to sanction New Delhi like it’s threatened to do should that come to pass. There are arguments for and against each of these three scenarios: India reneging on the deal; India going ahead with it and being sanctioned like expected; and India buying those missiles but America unexpectedly granting it a sanctions waiver. Each scenario also carries with it very specific geostrategic consequences. It’ll be argued that the ball is in India’s court, and that it must carefully weigh the pros and cons of purchasing the S-400s to decide whether the risk is truly worth it.
Regarding the first scenario of India reneging on the deal, this seems to be unlikely since it’s staked an immense amount of its international reputation on its sovereign decision to go through with it. Reversing course in the face of American pressure would symbolise its strategic capitulation to the US, which would confirm China’s suspicions that the South Asian state has become Washington’s latest proxy and preclude any credible chance of it relying on Moscow to “balance” between East and West. Nevertheless, India might be tempted to do this in order to smooth over differences of vision between the Modi and Biden Administrations, which New Delhi fears might work out to Pakistan’s regional advantage if they aren’t resolved as soon as possible.
Should India go through with the deal, then it’s most likely that it’ll be sanctioned. Relations with the US would suffer while ties with Russia would improve, thus enabling the latter to overcome their recent difficulties that were provoked late last year by New Delhi’s anger at Moscow’s criticism of its anti-Chinese activities in the US-led Quad. US-Pakistani relations would probably strengthen since Washington would question New Delhi’s commitment to their newly established de facto military alliance. India might even have a chance at entering into a detente with China since Russian military support will never suffice for “containing” the People’s Republic like American support would, thus compelling New Delhi to finally compromise with Beijing.
Finally, the last and perhaps least likely scenario is that the US would unexpectedly grant India a sanctions waiver if it purchases Russia’s S-400s. The logic behind this move would be that analogous American wares are insufficient for satisfying India’s air-defence needs vis-a-vis China, which would be a tacit self-inflicted blow to the reputation of the US’ military-industrial complex (hence why it’s so unlikely). In response, Chinese suspicions of India’s strategic relations with the US would surge, and some in Beijing might even speculate that Russia is unofficially contributing to America’s anti-Chinese “containment” coalition considering what would be Washington’s implicit hint in this direction by declining to sanction either Moscow or New Delhi for the S-400s.
With the above-mentioned insight in mind, India’s choice essentially boils down to a question of whether it’s willing to sacrifice its sovereignty to the US in pursuit of the shared grand strategic objective of “containing” China or if it’s willing to give detente a chance by angering America after going through with this deal but then realising that it cannot rely on Russia to sufficiently meet its anti-Chinese security needs like the US can. These first and second scenarios respectively are the most realistic since the third one seems improbable considering the incoming Biden Administration’s vehement hostility towards Russia, but only the second one will probably come to pass given the hints that India has already sent over the past three weeks.
There’s a chance, however, that the Indian leadership might be miscalculating if they naively think that Russia has the political will to sufficiently meet their security needs like the US can. I wrote earlier this month that “Russian-Chinese Ties Improved Due To India, But Aren’t Aimed Against It”, arguing that the US’ strong support of India’s anti-Chinese activities through the Quad brought Moscow and Beijing closer after the Eurasian Great Power earlier flirted with informally contributing to the South Asian state’s “containment” measures against the People’s Republic. As such, there’s no credible chance that Russia will replace the US’ role in aggressively supporting India’s anti-Chinese “containment” efforts, even amidst US-Indian acrimony over the S-400s.
India has long wanted to turn Russia and China against each other in order to divide and rule them both, but Moscow hasn’t the ability to simultaneously defend its western flank from NATO and its eastern one from Beijing in that scenario, hence the political-military unlikelihood of it happening. With this in mind, India stands no chance of meddling in the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership by purchasing the S-400s even if it’s likely sanctioned by the US in response. New Delhi should therefore understand that going through with that course of action would only be if it desires to explore the possibility of a potentially Russian-facilitated detente with China, not delude itself into thinking that Moscow will replace Washington as New Delhi’s top anti-Beijing ally.
This scenario might not be as implausible as it may initially sound to some, however. Should Biden commence the US’ own detente with China for a combination of pragmatism’s sake and to focus more on domestic challenges such as the economy and security, then India would be left in the lurch if it simultaneously submitted to the US while pushing away Russia by pulling out of the S-400 deal. It might therefore be better for India to go through with it if its leadership expects Biden to oversee a thaw in US-Chinese relations and then capitalise on the services offered by Russian diplomacy to explore the possibility of its own detente with China. Upon reflecting on it all, the question thus comes down to how India assess the future of US-Chinese relations.
If India concludes that Biden will probably stay the course on “containing” China (albeit with certain, largely superficial, changes perhaps), then it might decide to renege on the S-400 deal in order to continue playing the Quad’s vanguard role in this respect. On the other hand, if India believes that the US and China might enter into a state of detente for whatever reason it might be, then New Delhi would do well to make a show out of “defying” the US in order to trigger the sanctions regime against it, gain some “anti-American credibility” with Russia and China, and then request Moscow’s diplomatic services to help facilitate its own detente with Beijing (since it can’t rely on Russia to sufficiently meet its security needs for “containing” China like the US can).
All in all, the ball’s truly in India’s court. Each side – the US, Russia, and China – has already signalled how they’ll respond to each scenario. This is a dilemma entirely of India’s own making that speaks to just how much of a strategic corner it’s backed itself into as a result of its failed “multi-alignment” policy, which was never sincerely meant to “balance” between those players but was always just a disguise for pivoting towards the US. India put all its eggs in one basket by betting on Trump’s re-election and is now scrambling to adapt to the post-Trump world, one in which Biden might clinch a detente with China. At the end of the day, the India will soon have to make a fateful decision on the S-400s based on its prediction about the future of US-Chinese relations.