Vol. XLII No. 29 July 22, 2018

Capitulating to US Demands

THE contradiction between the strategic alliance with the United States and India’s national interest is coming to the fore. The Modi government is not going to resolve this contradiction in the national interest.  Rather, it is getting ready to capitulate to the demands of the Trump administration.

On the surface, the public stance adopted by the Modi government on issues such as maintaining economic and trade relations with Iran, or, buying sophisticated weaponry from Russia seems to be in consonance with national sovereignty and independent decision making. However, the reality is that this public stance is only a camouflage for the pusillanimous and weak-kneed positions the BJP rulers are adopting. 

Take the case of oil imports from Iran.  Iran is currently the third largest supplier of oil to India. The United States has withdrawn from the nuclear agreement with Iran and announced in May that it would re-impose sanctions. The sanctions on the petroleum sector will come into effect after a 180-day “wind-down” period ending on November 4.

The public stance adopted by the Indian government was spelt out by foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, who declared after a meeting with the Iranian foreign minister that India will accept sanctions only by the United Nations and not by any individual country. But soon after this, steps were taken to cut oil imports from Iran.  On June 28, the ministry of petroleum held a meeting with oil refinery companies asking them to explore alternatives to Iranian oil imports and to prepare for the eventuality of drastic reduction in oil purchases from Iran, or, even zero imports from that country. 

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, visited Delhi and met Prime Minister Modi. She announced that she had asked India to cut oil imports from Iran and to re-think its relationship with Iran.  The temerity of a junior US functionary conveying such a peremptory demand to the Indian prime minister was an affront which no self-respecting government should have stomached. But the Modi government, which is deeply entrapped in the subordinate alliance with the United States, kept quiet. 

In practice, the reduction in oil imports from Iran has begun.  In the month of June, there was a 16 percent reduction in oil imports from Iran compared to the month of May.  This was obviously done in preparation for the visit of a US team which is coming to India on July 17 to discuss how India’s oil imports from Iran can be stopped.  The Modi government is hoping that it can show that it has begun to cut oil imports from Iran just as the Manmohan Singh government reduced oil imports from that country when earlier US sanctions were imposed.

To drastically reduce oil imports from Iran will be detrimental to the country.  There are various advantages in importing oil from Iran which include the suitability of its crude oil for our refineries and the lesser cost of transport.  As against this, India is being pressurised to buy more oil from the United States. 

Disrupting oil supplies from Iran under US pressure will also affect India’s other economic ties with Iran.  India has invested heavily in developing the Chabahar port.  This will be in jeopardy if India agrees to fall in line with America’s unilateral sanctions.

The other issue which goes against India’s interest is the nature of the military collaboration with the United States. The United States is pressing India to sign the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). This is an agreement which will enable the installation of high end communication equipment on weapons platforms sold to India by the United States.  The United States is making this communication systems agreement conditional for selling high-tech weaponry to India.  Such an agreement will further bind the Indian armed forces to the US defence system. It will entail opening Indian military bases for US personnel to check the communication systems.  It will also enable the United States to monitor communications within the Indian military. Further, it will also make Russian equipment incompatible with other weapon systems.

The Modi government had already signed a logistics exchange agreement with the US in 2016 which will allow the US air force and navy to use Indian bases for re-fuelling, maintenance and supplies. 

The defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, has confirmed that the negotiations for signing the COMCASA are on.  A team of US defence experts had already visited India last month to finalise the details.  Signing the COMCASA will be another step in undermining the independence and integrity of the Indian armed forces. 

The United States is also threatening to invoke provisions of a law passed by the US Congress titled “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA) if India buys the S-400 missile system from Russia.  By this law, the United States government can impose sanctions against any country which has significant transactions with Russian defence and intelligence agencies. 

The Modi government hopes to get a “waiver” to buy the S-400 missile from Russia.  However, in doing so, it is also signaling that it will not be buying Russian defence equipment in a substantial manner in the future. Already the Indian government has called off the project for the joint development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft in collaboration with Russia.  On the other hand, defence deals worth billions of dollars are being negotiated with the US, including the $2 billion purchase of armed Predator drones.

Here again, India’s national interests will be sacrificed if the longstanding relationship with Russia as the supplier of defence equipment is scuttled.

To safeguard national interest and strategic autonomy, it is essential that the Indian government refuse to go along with the US demand to cut supplies of Iranian oil and break its economic and commercial ties with Iran. India should work out with the European Union, Russia and China how the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran, to which they were party, can be maintained and the unilateral US sanctions rebuffed.  It is also important that the government make it clear that it will not, in any way, downgrade its defence trade with Russia.  This will also require not signing up on intrusive binding military agreements like the COMCASA.  The Modi government cannot be allowed to carry on with the pretense of protecting national interests while actually undermining them. 

(July 18, 2018)