By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th July 18
Both US houses of Congress – the Senate and the House of Representatives – have jointly drafted legislation that will allow President Donald Trump to exempt close partners such as India from sanctions for buying weaponry from Russia.
The National Defense Authorization Act, 2019 (NDAA 2019) – the agreed version of which was finalized on Monday – imposes conditions for the grant of a sanctions waiver by the US president.
Section 1294 of NDAA 2019 mandates that the waiver must promote “the national security interests of the United States”. Second, it should not involve a “significant transaction” with specified Russian security and intelligence agencies. Third, it should not endanger American alliances or coalitions or compromise US defence systems and operational capabilities.
The sanctions were imposed in mid-2017 when the US Congress, furious at what it regarded as Russian meddling in America’s 2016 presidential election, and at Trump’s apparent reluctance to retaliate against Moscow, passed a law entitled “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA). Seeking to isolate Russia primarily, but also Iran and North Korea, it mandates sanctions against countries that engage in “significant transactions” with these countries’ defence and intelligence agencies.
However, Congress has been persuaded by the US administration, especially through hectic lobbying by Secretary for Defense Jim Mattis, that CAATSA would seriously compromise Washington’s relations with countries like India, Indonesia and Vietnam, which have a predominantly Russian arsenal and are, therefore, left with no choice but to deal with Russia to keep their weaponry serviceable.
NDAA 2019 is likely to enjoy smooth passage through Congress, since committees from both houses have agreed on the text of the bill.
Officials in the United States India Business Council (USIBC), which played a lead role in pushing the legislation through the joint Senate-House conference, point out that the language is aimed squarely at providing India an exemption from sanctions, with Indonesia and Vietnam being incidental beneficiaries.
“Without India, this waiver would have been substantially less likely to have been passed. The waiver conditions in the NDAA were tailored precisely to fit India so growth can continue in the India-U.S. defense relationship. The fact that this was done despite so many other political priorities in Washington DC demonstrates the robustness of U.S.-India ties,” says Ben Schwartz, who heads the aerospace and defence vertical of USIBC.
“At a time when India is focusing on growing defense ties with the US, we applaud Congress for also focusing on protecting this strategic partnership,” said Nisha Biswal, President, USIBC.
Schwartz points out that the third enabling clause -- which is that sanctions would “result in a significant negative impact to defense cooperation between the United States and the country” -- was inserted with India in mind.
Another piece of drafting enables India to bypass the clause that restricts waivers to countries that are “taking or will take steps to reduce its inventory of major defense equipment and advanced conventional weapons produced by the defense sector of the Russian Federation as a share of its total inventory… over a specified period.”
Knowing that India would be hard pressed to meet this clause, the NDAA 2019 draft says that, alternatively, the country should be “cooperating with the United States Government on other security matters that are critical to United States strategic interests.”
The legislation requires the US Secretaries of State and Defense to annually certify to the US Congress that the waiver has “not resulted in the compromise of United States systems and operational capabilities.”
Another part of NDAA 2019, Section 1266, seeks to build on the Major Defence Partnership between Washington and New Delhi by demanding a more detailed annual report to the US Congress on what the administration is doing to take forward the bilateral defence relationship.
It requires the annual report to include “a forward-looking strategy with specific benchmarks for measurable progress towards enhancing India’s status as a major defense partner and defense and security cooperation with India.”
The report must also detail hurdles in the relationship, actions India is taking to advance the relationship and measures that can improve interoperability between the two militaries.
“This institutionalises continuity in the relationship. It is Congress telling the US administration that we are watching, and we will hold you accountable for taking forward the US-India defence relationship,” said Schwartz.