US-India ties: CAATSA sanctions against India will trigger significant blowback, warns influential US think tank

As delivery of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system to India begins, a top US think tank has warned that sanctions against New Delhi under US law could trigger a blowback and set India-US ties back by a decade. In its report, Stimson Center has suggested that the US should either apply full waiver or only light and symbolic sanctions.

The US initiates sanctions under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act). But it is yet to decide on sanctions against India for its defence deal with Russia. The contract for the state-of-the-art air defence system was signed in 2018.

“CAATSA sanctions will trigger significant Indian political blowback, setting relations back a decade,” suggested Stimson Center in its report titled “Toward a Mature Defence Partnership”. “The United States should either issue India an enduring waiver or apply very light, symbolic sanctions once, with sufficient forewarning and dialogue with Indian leadership to mitigate political repercussions.”

The suggestion by the influential US think tank comes two weeks ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s India trip for the annual Summit on December 6. The report was created based on Stimson’s US-India Strategic Dialogue comprising Indian and American experts to offer insights on deepening security and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

The Stimson report also presented wide-ranging suggestions to expand Indo-US defence partnership, keeping India’s sensitivities and priorities in mind.

“India remains cautious about conspicuous confrontation with China, expects asymmetric US support, and guards its autonomy and sphere of influence,” the report said. “US official rhetoric on the partnership should emphasise discreet, less conspicuous cooperation on China—such as intelligence, maritime security and cybersecurity; bolstering Indian sovereignty and development; frequent consultation and coordination on India’s neighborhood; and long-term American pursuit of greater strategic reciprocity.”

The report further said that “India does not share the same US urgency over the maritime threat posed by China’s navy, has not made a major grand strategic shift to prioritising that threat, and remains ambivalent over a deep US-India defence partnership. Because US and Indian perceptions of regional trends and threats appear misaligned, the United States and India should engage in more frequent joint assessment processes at working-level meetings and inter-sessional engagements involving a cross-section of military, civilian defense professionals, diplomats, intelligence, and political leaders.”

The Stimson Center suggested that a standing Joint US-India Intelligence Assessment Center at INDOPACOM could serve as a mechanism for bilateral analytic exchanges, table-top exercises, and joint intelligence estimates.

According to the report, US-India relationship requires clear leadership signals and cabinet-level oversight/advocacy to overcome bureaucratic inertia and advance defence technology cooperation. A leader-level announcement of a joint flagship initiative with downstream impacts on defence technology cooperation, public-private partnerships, supply-chain integration, and talent formation—e.g., a joint programme to build the world’s most powerful supercomputer—would provide top-cover to advance defence, intelligence, R&D and economic cooperation, the report further suggested.

India measures the success of its strategic partnership with the US through the lens of technology cooperation and transfers in defence and civilian spheres. By those measures, India assesses the partnership falls short relative to those with Russia, France and Israel, the report pointed out.

“The Pentagon can revitalise the India-US Defense Technology and Trade Initiative by delivering on a high-visibility cooperation success (beyond an unmanned system prototype),” the report said. “Hybrid entities like DIU could “go global” to Indian cities via roadshows, overseas offices, and eventually co-investment to solve joint challenges. US agencies should expand R&D institutional partnerships and talent exchange flows that could fill US demands for STEM talent and boost India’s skilled economy. The Pentagon should partner with state and commerce to establish the US-India Strategic Tech Alliance focused on emerging technology recommended by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.”

The US Navy should propose to advance the tempo and complexity of joint exercises, as well as accompanying subject-matter expert engagements. These should include joint P-8 exercises out of Indian and US bases, a ship anti-submarine warfare readiness and evaluation measurement exercise, and joint deployment of Surveillance Towed Array Sensor Systems in the Bay of Bengal, according to the Stimson Center.

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