The reported American informal fiat to India to give an assurance that it would buy the F-16 fighter aircraft from the US to avoid sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for India’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems is an act of virtual blackmail which is condemnable.
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While India is believed to have refused to give such an assurance, the pressure on the Narendra Modi government for it is intense. Evidently, there was no lofty goal behind US objections to the Indo-Russian deal. The motivation to deter it was plain and simple expediency.
In its final days in office, the Barack Obama administration too had sold F-16s to Pakistan despite the record of the Pakistan government in fuelling terrorism in the Indian sub-continent. It should indeed be amply clear that US claims of deterring an arms race in the sub-continent as elsewhere are hogwash and are dictated by narrow US self-interest. Any attempt to give it a lofty colour is downright ridiculous and an act of hypocrisy.
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It is perhaps concessions like these held out by Pakistan that have led to the Americans ignoring Indian submissions of the Pakistani involvement in training, arming and infiltration of terrorists into India, especially Kashmir. The US has constantly paid lip service to putting a stop to such brazen Pakistani activity while looking the other way when it comes to stopping such a nefarious practice.
Nirmala Sitharaman is also scheduled to make her first bilateral visit to the US as Defence Minister in mid-December and there is every possibility that the Americans would seek to corner her on the purchase of F-16s or F-18s in the course of discussions there. Other reasons why India is reluctant to buy F-16s is also because they are not compatible with India’s Brahmos missiles and that they have been in Pakistan’s armoury for three decades.
It is believed that the American presentation of the buy F-16 proposition to India was made as part of active deliberation at the 2+2 Indo-US meeting at which the Americans were represented by Secretary of State Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis while India had External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. A subsequent meeting was held at the Singapore ASEAN summit earlier this month.
There was a veiled threat in President Donald Trump’s statement to media last week that India would find out the answer to whether the US will impose sanctions on New Delhi “sooner than you think.” The waiver is indeed dependent on Trump and all eyes are on him.
While the waiver under CAATSA would require, among other things, for countries to significantly reduce their reliance on Russian arms, the sanctions would trigger off once New Delhi makes even part-payment for the Russian missile system which could happen as early as this year.
Considering that India sorely needs spares of Russian arms bought in the past, expecting this country to stop all Russian defence imports would be unrealistic.
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That India could be preparing for the eventuality of having to buy the F-16s or F-18s is borne out by the fact that the Indian Air Force has issued an RFI (request for information) for buying 114 fighter aircraft under a competitive bidding process. But that does not necessarily mean opting for F-16 or F-18.
All in all, a battle of nerves lies ahead. By insisting on India not buying the S-400s if it wants the sanctions to be warded off, the US is failing to appreciate the fact that India sorely needs these to stave off the challenge from China which has already acquired this advanced missile system which could pose a threat to Indian security interests and consequently jeopardise US’ global plans.