Billion dollar arms deals: Will the Indian sweetener sway the United States?
New Delhi: The United States is expected to play tough in the 2+2 dialogue slated for September 6th. It’s Nirmala Sitharaman & Sushma Swaraj versus Mike Pompeo & Jim Mattis – (key players in both countries).
The Modi government is equally determined not to buckle under pressure. More than anything else, the Americans want India’s Iran imports to be brought down to zero by November 4th. Or face sanctions. A near impossible task for India, given India’s reliance on Iranian crude, which is over 80 per cent. The Indians want a special waiver for the purchase of S-400 from Russia (costing 6 billion US dollars), so far, the most modern, anti-defence missile system.
So after the tough talk on both sides, what is the sweetener? India’s counter offer may be to give a nod to Lockheed Martins F-18 (70.5 million dollars per aircraft ) or Sikorsky choppers (a 2 billion dollar US deal) badly needed by the Indian Navy. In return of course, the Indian hope is on two fronts – the US waiver on the Russian missile purchase. This may take time but an official US nod is what is expected by Indians. And the other is to ignore India’s oil imports from Iran.
The 2+2 dialogue has been delayed for sometime. This time round, say sources from both sides, the gloves would be off. After the Trump-Modi tango that was mainly rhetorical in nature, the tough talking administration has taken over all the negotiations. On paper, the 2+2 dialogue meetings are about intelligence sharing with the navy, sharing of satellite information, etc. There is a catch here too – will the US have access to information from India? How would it be looked upon by China and Russia, the other two Super Powers?
The meetings come in the backdrop of US’s ambitious bid to re-establish its stamp of authority in South Asia, seen (by the Republicans) to have diminished during the Obama years.
This is not the first time that India has braced itself to deal with pressure from the United States. This time however, the stakes seem high. The Trump Administration has been mandated by President Trump himself to act tough on Iran, compelling nations all around the world to boycott oil imports from that country. The other Trump mandate is the Russian sanctions.
This is hitting former allies like Turkey which also bought the S-400. Its another thing that Turkey-US relations have nosedived in the recent past. But unlike in the past, Donald Trump and his administration are more transactional in their approach. They are always looking for a good business play.
To be tough you need to act tough. In Pakistan, despite the US’s show of aggressiveness (cutting of a 300 US million dollar aid), Pakistan has begun realigning with others. Russia is one country that is being approached besides China, its all-weather friend. The US would be losing not just business in Pakistan but also a former ally.
In India, the Modi government’s ‘Make in India’ diktat as a compulsory element in all defence negotiations, has added teeth to its negotiations. In the case of Lockheed Martin, they are prepared to offer entire production facilities in India.
The US realizes that based on their experience in other countries like Pakistan, an act tough policy has only limited scope particularly if the ‘victim state’ is prepared to look at other options. It cannot reach the tipping point particularly with potential allies like India.
From the US viewpoint, the so called strategic partnership can be given a go-by if it means more business. And since all diplomatic business is now transactional, particularly under Trump, India does hold the the aces, being a multi-billion dollar market. By US estimates India is a 15 billion dollar arms market.
With Lockheed and major arms manufacturers lobbying with Washington, can the US afford to lose such a huge business opportunity.
(The writer is Diplomatic Correspondent, Newsroom Post)