Amidst the panic over the future of the Atlantic alliance and the furore over the Trump-Putin Helsinki bromance, a small but significant news item has gone virtually unnoticed. The quietly announced US approval for the sale of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) to India has acknowledged India’s strategic autonomy while underscoring its value as an ally against rising China. With the Sea Guardian drone sale under its belt, India may now be allowed to purchase the Russian anti-missile defence system when senior US officials arrive in Delhi for the 2+2 meeting on September 6.
Of course, in the Trump era, a month is an eternity and things could change with a single tweet. Indeed, both of the previously scheduled 2+2 meetings were cancelled last minute, first when then secretary of state Rex Tillerson was fired (by tweet) and later when his replacement was unexpectedly dispatched to Pyongyang. But the fact that the US appears inclined to accommodate India – evident in the sale of the previously denied armed Sea Guardian drone (a weapon previously sold only to Nato allies) – hopefully marks a lasting shift, matching America’s growing anxiety about China.
In a way, debate over the acquisition of the UCAV has become intertwined with India’s quest for “strategic autonomy”. India has increasingly looked at drones to protect its borders and vast coast line. The 26/11 Mumbai attack by the sea-borne Pakistani terrorists remains a vivid reminder of India’s vulnerabilities. The threat from the sea has grown since with the increased Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The acquisition of the Sea Guardian (the naval variant of the MQ-9B Reaper) drone would afford India the means to address this vulnerability.
But the sale is contingent on India signing the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) – namely, the encrypted data and communication system needed to operate the US-supplied weapons and allow interoperability. Earlier India balked at signing this for fear of opening up its secure communication systems to Washington and compromising its strategic autonomy. According to reports, this concern has been addressed with the US agreeing to have the communications link apply only to US-supplied weapons.
Resolution of the communications hurdle also raises the possibility that Washington would agree to a waiver on mandated sanctions against India for its planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 system. Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, sanctions are automatically imposed on countries acquiring weapons from some Russian state-controlled defence firms. However, given the fact that both defence secretary Jim Mattis and secretary of state Mike Pompeo have urged Congress to issue national security waivers, and that both Democrats and Republicans are concerned about winning over countries against China, there is a good chance that India, Indonesia and Vietnam will be granted waivers. Although feelings are running high against Russia for its past and present interference in US elections, worries about China could outweigh concerns about Russian military sales to friendly countries.
While President Donald Trump has upended the decades-old Western alliance through his transactional approach, and angered Nato by currying favour with Putin, India has managed to stay above the fray. With the exception of a minor spat over US tariffs on Indian steel and aluminium exports, India has managed to avoid featuring in Trump’s Twitter rants. Seen by the entire Washington establishment as a friendly power and an increasingly solid customer for US military hardware (the purchase of 22 Sea Guardian drones at $2-3 billion could create 2,000 American jobs), India finds itself in a calmer spot in the Trump-induced turbulence. The fact that Washington is wooing India by opening its hitherto prohibited military store does increase the prospect of angering China but by the same token increases India’s leverage.
Through lucky convergence, India finds itself in a sweet spot but it will need to sharpen its balancing skills as unexpected gusts of wind – or surprise tweets – could easily push its strategic autonomy efforts off-course.
By: Blogs TNN – Nayan Chanda
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