Even as India prepares to buy advanced missiles from Russia — a potentially sanctionable action — a top U.S. diplomat touted the “strategic importance” of the relationship between Washington and New Delhi.
Russia has long been India’s top weapons supplier, but the U.S. has been gaining. Since 2008, Delhi has bought about $15 billion in American arms.
“If we want to see that continue and I think both we and our Indian friends want to do that, then it’s incumbent on us to give them the best case and hopefully that will engender a willingness on the part of the Indian government to think about our systems as they go forward in their procurement,” Tina Kaidanow, principal deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau, said Thursday in a call with reporters.
The U.S. has been trying to deepen relations with India for a decade. In recent weeks, the Pentagon renamed its geographic warfighting hub U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, “recognizing the reality of India’s rise and role in regional and global security,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said.
Kaidanow was in New Delhi late last month for what she called “exceptionally good, very, very productive conversations” with Indian government officials.
“As a function of trying to move the defense relationship forward — and certainly the defense trade relationship — it is important that those foundational agreements are considered by the Indian government, they are acted on hopefully as expeditiously as possible,” she said. “Of course it is their sovereign right to decide on these things, but our hope is that we have presented to them some good options and some ways forward. Hopefully we can make some progress in that relatively soon.”
While Kaidanow wouldn’t divulge details, officials discussed the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, sanctions imposed on Russian, Iranian and North Korean companies by Congress. Almaz-Antey, maker of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system being purchased by India is on the list.
“The acquisition of these systems is…beneficial to the Russian government,” Kaidanow said, not specifically talking about the S-400 deal.”Our distinct hope is that other countries will take that into account as they make their decisions.”
The ambassador said U.S. officials have had similar discussions with a “number of others who might be potentially contemplating purchases of large systems from the Russians. We want to help work with all of our partners to help them identify and avoid engaging in any potentially sanctionable activity,” she said.
Delhi’s plan to acquire 110 fighter jets in the coming years has prompted Lockheed Martin and Boeing to promise Indian assembly lines for their F-16 and F/A-18 aircraft. Co-production is required as part of the multibillion-dollar deal. Lockheed — which is moving its F-16 production line from Texas to South Carolina — has even considered moving all production of the jet to India.
Asked when India will move forward with the deal, Kaidanow said it is “still a little bit unclear…where the process all stands.”
Regardless, U.S. officials will advocate for American jets over four European aircraft expected to compete for the contract.
“American defense product is great product — it is the best in the world,” Kaidanow said. “It’s central that countries really think about when they acquire these things — and particularly when we’re talking about important systems like fighters — that they think about the quality and the interoperability piece and all of the things that we know come with the acquisition of American products.”