Diversification of options is the name of the diplomatic game. That is the message coming out after India and Russia inked the USD 5 billion agreement for the supply of the formidable S-400 air defence system during President Vladimir Putin's two-day visit to India and his annual summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The deal was indisputably the centre-piece of the Russian leader's visit.
Signing the deal for the air defence system, which can bring down enemy missiles, stealth war planes and unmanned aerial vehicles from a good distance, is in keeping with Russia's undisputed numero uno status as the supplier of military hardware to India since 1950s. That status has remained unchallenged all through the Cold War era, when India was aligned with the erstwhile Soviet Union, till today when the international political and economic scenarios have undergone significant changes. But what makes the India-Russia deal for S-400 air defence system more strategically important is that it was clinched under the shadow of threats of American sanctions under the President Donald Trump administration's law Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Mind you, this is the law under which the United States imposed financial sanctions on China just a week ago for buying the same weapon system from Russia.
It is important to note that the deal for the Russian air defence system came exactly a month after this year's first highest-level political engagement between India and the US, when defence and foreign ministers of the two countries had met in Delhi. During interactions between top foreign and defence officials of the US and India, India signalled that it badly needed the S-400 to counter potential threats from China and Pakistan and that it is part of India's USD-100-billion plan for modernisation of its armed forces.
The most immediate reaction emanating from the US to the India-Russia deal was guarded. A spokesman of the US Embassy in New Delhi said the aim of the CAATSA was to “impose costs” on Russia for its “malign behaviour” and not to damage the interests of America's allies. Does this mean that the US has appreciated India's view that the S-400 air defence system, which had been under negotiations since 2015, is part of New Delhi's long legacy of sourcing defence hardware from Russia? Does the US reaction also reflect Washington's dilemma when it comes to India? No doubt the US would like to see India as a strong counterforce to China's growing military assertiveness in Asia and beyond. The China factor binds Washington and New Delhi together.
It was expected that a rightist dispensation in New Delhi would show a pro-US tilt. That was seen when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was at the helm between 1998 and 2004. That tilt continued for some years when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister, as it was during his stint that India and the US signed the landmark bilateral civil nuclear deal marking a major step towards integrating New Delhi into the world atomic trade. That deal was done despite potential political risks of losing power when the Left parties, which had provided crucial life-and-blood support from outside to Singh's coalition government, had moved a no-trust motion against him. It is a different matter that Singh had survived the risk.
Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government assumed power, India's outreach to the US was more pronounced. India and the US signed agreements for sourcing military transport planes from the US and talks on buying Apache helicopters are also on. In September this year, the two countries signed an agreement for exchange of sensitive military communication and announced plans for military exercises in 2019 during the talks between their top foreign and defence officials. The US has risen to become India's second largest arms supplier.
While India has been cutting down on purchase of weapon systems from Russia, it does not want to alienate a long-standing ally like Russia which has stood by India through the decades. The Modi government is mindful of the fact that due to historical reasons, Russia has a more positive image in India than the US. Indians recall how the Soviet Union had pressured the US to turn back its warship from the Bay of Bengal during Bangladesh's 1971 War of Liberation. They also remember that while the US and many Western-European powers and others including Japan and Australia had imposed sanctions on the delivery of sensitive defence and nuclear technology to India after New Delhi's May 1998 nuclear test, Russia refrained from doing so and was steadfastly with India. In the last four years, India has ramped up its energy ties with Russia which is India's largest investment destination (more than USD 10 billion) in that country's oil and gas fields.
Of course, there is recognition in New Delhi that Russia has in the last five years moved closer to China and Pakistan. But there is also a realisation that it is much like India's own shift towards the US in a changing world. For India, it is not a question of keeping one happy at the cost of the other but maintaining a delicate balance. India has started accepting that the present-day world needs a balance in the world view between transactional and ideological approaches. But it has also signalled that it would not be pushed around by anyone in the process.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent to The Daily Star.