India has the right to decide on its energy and defence priorities

India has traditionally refused to recognise unilateral sanctions slapped by one country against other without the explicit approval of the United Nations. During UPA-II, Manmohan Singh’s government had rejected the US sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme. This policy continues to be followed by the NDA government of prime minister Narendra Modi. By the same measure, the US sanctions against Chinese military commission may not prevent India from protecting its offensive and defensive strategic interests globally. The US Republican Administration of President Donald Trump announced sanctions against China for buying SU-35 fighter jets and S-400 missile systems from Russia in December last year and beginning of 2018. Now, Washington’s veiled threat to India for considering $6 billion S-400 missiles deal with Russia should alert the Indian security establishment. The US proposes to invoke similar sanctions against India under the dreaded Combating America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) 2017.

Indian government officials seem to be sure that given the excellent personal equation that Modi has with Trump, matters might not go out of hand on the issue. At the recently held two plus two ministerial conclave in the capital, India had discussed both Russian defence purchases and crude oil imports from Iran with top US officials. Both foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and defence minister Nirmala Seetharaman seem to have broached the subjects with their counterparts Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis. As the US described India as a major defence partner, New Delhi’s expectations evidently went up that it would not face action on the issue of India’s Russian military purchases and oil from Iran. However, in view of the unpredictable nature of the Trump administration, India would be wise to prepare for a sudden negative turn of events.

Already, the US administration had slapped huge tariffs against Indian steel exports forcing New Delhi to consider retaliation with its own set of duties against American products. Since the India-US summit was underway and negotiations between the trade and investment ministries were being held, New Delhi had stalled its punitive measures till November 4. Having tasted the bitter pill on trade front, India may have to consider mobilising opinion within and outside the country to tackle the US sanctions, in case they are slapped on India. But that may mean a forced tilt towards the China-Russia axis on trade, investment and defence fronts. To date, India has steered clear of the big boys’ checker games, keeping equidistance and trying to leverage the strengths of its partners for mutual benefit.

With Iran, India had already curtailed its crude imports by a third. And, with Russia, the S-400 missile systems were zeroed in, after having considered competitive US and European options. Eventual technology transfer, joint production in India and third-country exports apart pricing were the clinchers for Russian weapons. The US cannot prevent India from doing commercial transactions with Russia having strategic implications or crude imports from Iran as part of New Delhi’s energy security campaign. The US would be wise not to alienate dependable Asian allies like India, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Trade, investments and defence ties constitute a two-way street.