Voices on Capitol Hill back CAATSA sanctions waiver for India

Biden administration remains tight-lipped as it works through details.

November 10, 2021 08:23 pm | Updated 09:47 pm IST - Washington

U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks. File

U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks. File

The Chairman of the powerful U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), Gregory Meeks (Democrat), has encouraged the Biden administration to consider a waiver of sanctions for India for the purchase of the Russian S-400 Triumf missile defence system , which New Delhi is expected to take delivery of by the end of this year.

“I’d encourage the administration’s consideration of a waiver for India. Taking a long view, the potential of our long term strategic partnership with India, and its positive impact on our own security interests, certainly outweighs any kind of benefit from sanctioning India because of its purchase of the S400,” Mr. Meeks told The Hindu recently in an email sent through his communications team. The Hindu had approached his office asking where HFAC and Mr. Meek stood on the issue.

Comment | The sanctions cloud over India-U.S. ties

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Congress have, in recent weeks, urged U.S. President Joe Biden to waive sanctions on India under a 2017 U.S. law, the Countering Americas Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) .

The President is required to impose sanctions on entities doing business with the intelligence or defence divisions of the Russian government under Section 231 of CAATSA. However, Congress also gave the President the authority to “waive the initial application of sanctions” under certain conditions, so sanctions do not work against American interests by penalising the country’s allies and partners.

While the Biden administration has not articulated its position on CAATSA publicly yet, and declined to provide comments for this story, it is understood to be deliberating on questions such as whom specifically to sanction and at what point in the process sanctions kick in.

The President’s National Security Council (NSC) declined to comment on the White House’s position to an October 26 letter from Senators John Cornyn (Republican) and Mark Warner (Democrat) , co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus, asking President Joe Biden to waive sanctions on India.

The Hindu also reached out to the Pentagon and three State Department bureaus which provide input into this decision: South and Central Asia (SCA) , International Security and Non-proliferation (ISN), and the Bureau of Political Military Affairs (PM).

The Pentagon directed queries to the State Department where ISN has the “overall policy lead on all issues related to CAATSA,” as per one State Department official. The bureau said it did not have anybody to answer questions on the issue at present. SCA had also suggested that its newly confirmed head, Assistant Secretary Donald Lu, was busy for the “next few weeks” and a conversation might be possible later.

It is no accident, however, that the executive has uniformly put off articulating a position on this highly sensitive issue before it needs to show its cards.

The U.S.-India ‘Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership’ is expanding and strengthening, including in its security aspects. Apart from the investments both countries are making in the partnership for its own sake, India is also a key element of the U.S’s overall strategy in the Indo-Pacific, much of which is involved with countering China’s domination of the region. Imposing sanctions and talking about them with India is therefore a delicate and awkward matter, and timing counts for a lot.

“My guess is that the administration is withholding a judgment on CAATSA as long as they can, and at least until after the 2+2 meeting in December, perhaps to see what deliverables come out of it. You certainly wouldn’t announce sanctions on India before the 2+2,” said Sameer Lalwani, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington DC based think tank.

The ‘2+2’ is a dialogue between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and their American counterparts. The next meeting of the group is scheduled to take place in Washington in early December.

“The administration is looking for India to produce a mitigation strategy that reassures them that once India gets the S-400 system, it will not have an adverse effect on any other U.S. supplied system that India may also operate concurrently,” said Ashley Tellis, a former advisor to the George W. Bush administration and U.S. foreign and security policy expert with the Carnegie Endowment.

“And so that mitigation strategy is what the administration started discussing with India several months ago. My understanding is that that process is still underway,” he said.

The U.S. had removed Turkey for its F-35 joint striker program in 2019, citing security concerns, after Istanbul began taking delivery of the S-400 system in July 2019

Mr. Tellis and others, however, point to the logical inconsistency of the U.S. sanctioning India — an important Indo-Pacific ally that shares some of America’s concerns around Beijing’s role in the region.

“One thing that plays in India’s favour is that its importance to the United States as part of its own overall China strategy has increased dramatically, I would say, in the last year to two years,” said Lisa Curtis, who was Senior Director for South and Central Asia in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Council and is currently a fellow at the Center for New American Security in Washington DC.

Additionally, the administration is also keeping an eye on what Congress is thinking. Bipartisan support for a waiver, especially from Republicans, Ms. Curtis said, will make it “a lot easier” when it comes to considering a waiver.

“I think India does have to prove that even though it’s taking delivery of the system, that it is sensitive to U.S. concerns about the technology sharing issue, and that it will continue to look to the U.S. for the majority of its defence needs when it comes to sophisticated high technology,” Ms. Curtis said.

Three Republican Senators, led by Ted Cruz, had introduced legislation , last week, to make it harder for the administration to impose sanctions on a member of the Quad — i.e., India, Japan or Australia. However, the Cruz-led amendment was time bound, and India would be expected to “deepen ties with the Quad” and not keep shopping for weapons in Moscow in about 10 years’ time, a Senate Republican aide had told The Hindu .

As far as the Congress is concerned, it is not just Republicans whose support is important to this Democratic administration. The Senate is tied 50:50 with Vice-President Kamala Harris holding a tie-breaking vote — a precarious situation for the Biden administration as the arduous negotiations within the party around Mr. Biden’s Build Back Better plan and Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal have shown in recent weeks.

Mr. Biden cannot afford to alienate a single Senate Democrat on the CAATSA waiver, as he needs every vote to carry forward his domestic agenda.

“So, even if they have decided on a waiver, why stoke the flames? They have constituencies in Congress, including Senator [Bob] Menendez, that they don’t want to irritate unnecessarily by saying to India: ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to get a waiver’,” said Jeff Smith, a South Asia specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Mr. Menendez, who is the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had asked Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to raise the S-400 issue with New Delhi on a trip to India in March 2021. His office did not respond to multiple requests from The Hindu for a comment on his current position on a CAATSA waiver for India.

The administration also does not want to give “the wrong impression to Turkey or other countries that CAATSA is no big deal and waivers are easy to come by”, Mr. Smith said.

The timing of any waiver announcement notwithstanding, the case of Turkey — which, in addition to being booted out of the F-35 programme, was subsequently sanctioned by the Trump administration under pressure from Congress — is different, Mr. Tellis said, as Turkey is a NATO ally. “Because Turkey is a treaty ally, the expectations of Turkey are both higher and different compared to our expectations of India. India is not a treaty ally, we do not have collective defence obligations with India.”

He said, “India should be free to acquire whatever systems it wants from any country. I mean, that’s been the premise of the partnership going back now 20 years,”

Another point that repeatedly came up during conversations The Hindu had with experts in Washington is that those who work in national security as it relates to Russia might be in favour of sanctions if they believe the benefits of containing Moscow outweigh the costs of sanctioning New Delhi.

Some, like Tanvi Madan, who directs the India Project at Brookings, believe that U.S. sanctions would actually benefit Russia.

“U.S. sanctions on India will be counterproductive in that they will actually benefit Russia, which has already been using the prospect of sanctions to try to convince India that the U.S. is unreliable both as a strategic partner and a defence supplier,” she said.

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