India’s defense strategy balancing act

India’s defense strategy balancing act

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India has crafted a brilliant strategy to engage both Russia and the United States to diversify its defense portfolio. Indeed, it is a laborious job for New Delhi to keep Moscow and Washington strategically engaged in modernizing its armed forces, and to balance Beijing’s increasing military prowess and establish hegemony in South Asia. 

On December 7, while reiterating India as “a great power," President Vladimir Putin inked a 10-year defense technical cooperation agreement and a one-year oil contract. Despite India’s strategic partnership with the United States, Putin seems confident he can recapture the Indian gargantuan military hardware and energy market. 

Historically, the Americans were not used to covenant with a strategic partner that independently conducts defense deals with their strategic competitor. Nevertheless, currently, the Biden administration is increasing its courtship with the Modi government to pursue its geopolitical objectives in the Asia-Pacific.  

India purchased numerous important platforms from the US, especially naval assets like the P-8I maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft and the MH-60 Romeo helicopter. Besides, a few American defense firms are facilitating co-production of defense equipment and integrating Indian companies into the supply chains of US defense manufacturers. For instance, the Tata-Boeing joint ventures to produce Apache helicopter fuselages and the Tata-Lockheed joint venture for Lockheed's C-130 empennages and F-16 wing supplies.  

The Trump administration expressed its frustration over India’s $5.2 billion, five S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile systems deal with Russia and disinclination to purchase American built surface-to-air missiles—the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in 2018.

It was expected that the Russian S-400 delivery would invite US sanctions under its 2017 law— Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)—aimed at deterring countries from buying Russian military hardware. In January 2021, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey for buying S-400 missiles. However, it seems the Biden administration will refrain from levying sanctions against India despite the beginning of missiles’ supplies this month. 

Moscow continues upgrading strategic partnerships, deepening collaboration in nuclear and space technology with Beijing. Hence, there are no short-term silver bullets to cure the contemporary Russian-American rift.

Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

The CAATSA does not have any blanket or country-specific waiver provision. However, to keep India on its side to check China, the US Congress amended the law in July 2018. The amendment allows a waiver "under certain conditions" such as "whether the concerned country is cooperating with the United States on critical security matters and taking steps to reduce its procurement of major defense equipment from Russia." Indeed, the amendment encouraged India to upgrade its defense cooperation with Russia.

The United States' strategic dependence on India increases with the steady rise of Chinese military muscularity. The virtual summit between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping did not pacify mutual anger. Washington continues demonizing China and struggling to counter its rise or somehow roll it back. The Sino-US strategic competition resulted in America's boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing over human rights concerns.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Russia has adopted a flexible policy for reaping benefits from the Indian defense and energy market. It maintains its nuclear material and technology supply to India despite the Indo-US nuclear deal on July 18, 2005. Consequently, the India-Russia nuclear energy cooperation is constantly gaining momentum. Likewise, Russia is still a key partner of India for manufacturing defense equipment regardless of the US designation of the latter as a "Major Defense Partner" in June 2016, which elevated the Indo-US defense partnership to a level commensurate with its closest allies and partners.

The tension between Russians and Americans has increased after Russia amassed troops on its border with Ukraine. The Biden administration is contemplating if, when, and how Kyiv will get US assistance. Last month Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov approached his American counterpart Lloyd Austin with a request of sophisticated weapons systems, including support for air and naval defense and electronic warfare—

a potential shield against devastating bombings and electromagnetic attacks that would likely accompany any forward march across Ukraine by Russian mechanized forces.”

India desires to play its role in bridging gaps between the United States and Russia. However, the global strategic environment is not conducive for such proceedings due to the latter's assertiveness in Europe and increasing understanding with China in the Central Asian economic ventures. Besides, the Americans had already distanced from Russia by exiting from two important bilateral arms control treaties in 2002 and 2019.

The recent Sino-Russia joint naval drills in the Sea of Japan were an attempt to balance the trilateral Malabar Naval Exercise in the region. Indeed, the robust bilateral ties are a balancer to the US alliances (QUAD) in the Indo-Pacific and trans-Atlantic regions (NATO).

India maintains its Russian defense cooperation to allure the US or vice versa. Moscow continues upgrading strategic partnerships, deepening collaboration in nuclear and space technology with Beijing. Hence, there are no short-term silver bullets to cure the contemporary Russian-American rift.

In summary, Indo-Russian military and energy cooperation persists due to India’s military and nuclear needs and Russia’s economic needs. However, this bond could be fractured by further escalation of Indo-China tension and a deepening Indo-American military, nuclear, space, and economic cooperation.

— Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University.
Twitter: @zafar_jaspal

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