On June 8, 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a joint session of Congress. I was in the room as Modi, reflecting on the United States-India relationship, said “the constraints of the past are behind us and foundations of the future are firmly in place”. Also present — in fact, sitting right behind Modi — was then-vice president Joe Biden. In the years since, Biden has generally echoed Modi’s positive message.
When it comes to India, however, today’s Biden is at a critical juncture. In front of him, he has an opportunity to further build on Modi’s “foundations of the future” in the form of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. But if he caves to Democratic demands to sanction India for its purchase of a Russian defence system, he could also undermine all of these foundations. It’s imperative Biden use his presidential powers to defend the US-India relationship.
In March, the Biden administration brought leaders from the four Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries — India, Japan, Australia, and the US — together for a summit on their shared priorities. The group, affectionately known as “the Quad”, was originally centred around combating the after-effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and was later formalised in 2007. In recent years, however, its priorities have been crystalised by China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific. Biden alluded to this dynamic in an address to Quad leaders, stressing that “a free and open Indo-Pacific is essential to each of our futures”.
Building on momentum
The Biden administration’s early emphasis on the Quad is a welcome sign. Gatherings like the March summit — if followed by concrete actions — have the potential to build on the momentum of the past four years. Since 2017 — when the Quad restarted negotiations after years of lull — it has become one of the focal points of US strategy for countering China.
While Japan and Australia have, for the most part, been eager participants in the Quad, the same cannot be said of India; the world’s largest democracy has long been skeptical of aligning with others on the international stage. However, in recent years, there has been a nuanced shift in New Delhi towards what is now being referred to as “strategic autonomy”. This new posture seems to be an attempt at striking a balance between independence in decision-making and doing what’s necessary to protect India’s strategic assets.
As the only Quad country that shares a land border with China, India’s unique role within the group cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, this land border has also been the site of fighting. Indeed, India is the only Quad country that has lost members of its military in combat with China’s People’s Liberation Army since World War II.
The US relationship to India has fluctuated through the years. Though New Delhi’s apparent drift toward autocracy is concerning, only through diplomatic engagement can the US and India work to uphold democratic values and human rights throughout the Indo-Pacific opposite decidedly undemocratic adversaries like China. Thanks in part to the bipartisan leadership that followed Modi’s 2016 address to Congress, the US and India now have a deepening relationship on almost every front. This is increasingly evident in military sales.
A reliance on Moscow
Before the US began intensifying its relationship with India, India imported most of its arms from Russia. As a result, New Delhi still relies on Moscow to provide many of its military needs. However, as with other dimensions of India’s foreign policy, the Indian military has been moving closer to the West in recent years. India now participates in large, joint military exercises with the US. It has also significantly increased its purchases of US military equipment from a few million dollars in 2019 to $3.4 billion in 2020.
Despite these warming trends, the Democratic chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Senator Bob Menendez, recently called for India to be threatened with sanctions under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if it moves forward with a purchase of the Russian S-400 system. Section 231 imposes sanctions on entities that “operate for or on behalf of” Russian defence or intelligence sectors.
But sanctioning India would not deter its purchase of the S-400 system. In fact, if the Biden administration sanctioned India, it would undermine both the US relationship with India and the Quad’s ability to counter China collectively — weakening two strategic fronts at a critical time.
Given India’s historical skepticism of international cooperation and long-standing ties to Russia, any sanctions would be amplified and leveraged by those within India who remain trepidatious about deeper engagement with the West, such as the Non-Aligned Movement. Moreover, Russia could take advantage of the sanctions to reclaim its role as India’s military partner of choice. Paradoxically then, sanctioning New Delhi over its Russian-made defence system would actually prove to be a geostrategic victory for Moscow.
Call for flexibility
In April 2018, following the enactment of CAATSA, then-defense secretary James Mattis discussed a scenario wherein a close partner or ally, such as India, might purchase arms from Russia with now-chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Jack Reed. In his testimony, Mattis asked Congress to consider providing a more “flexible [national security] waiver authority” for CAATSA. Otherwise, he said, “we prevent ourselves from acting in our own best interest and place an undue burden on our allies and partners”. In response to Mattis’s request, Congress granted the waiver authority as part of the John S McCain National Defense Authorization Act in August 2018. The president is the sole individual with the authority to invoke the waiver.
Now, with the Quad on the line — and an increasingly aggressive Beijing looking on — it is time for the Biden administration to make use of Mattis’s waiver authority, which received bipartisan support in Congress. This waiver should be used to help craft a thoughtful and nuanced US foreign policy that views the world as it is — through a realist lens rather than one of pure idealism.
By invoking the waiver authority and allowing India’s purchase of Russian weaponry, the Biden administration can make clear that China is the primary geostrategic threat to the US. As the US acknowledges that fact, the White House must then prioritise — in word and deed — relationships with those countries critical to meeting that threat head on. By doing so, all Quad countries will benefit.