US lawmakers have voted against sanctioning India for importing Russian S-400 missiles. Washington's show of support will allow the South Asian nation to pursue its quest for Western weapons to deter neighbour China.
The 14 July waiver will enable India to conclude the import of five air defence systems by early next year, without facing US retaliation.
"I have been working to strengthen the partnership between our countries and ensure that India can defend itself along the Indian-Chinese border," said Congressman Ro Khanna, seeking an amendment for the India-specific waiver.
"The US must stand with India in the face of escalating aggression from China," the politician said, reminding the house of the strategic partnership between the world’s two foremost democracies.
The vice-president of the ruling BJP party, Baijayant Jay Panda, hailed the decision on social media calling it "an affirmation of India's rising influence in shaping the geopolitics & the New World Order".
Analysts said India’s huge market and its quest for Western arms swayed the Congress to amend the law to waive sanctions, which have already been imposed on Turkey for importing S-400s from Russia, India’s largest arms supplier.
"I do not think the sanctions waiver was given with the China threat to India in mind," Anil Golani from the Delhi-based Centre for Airpower Studies, a privately-run military research agency, told RFI.
"The US is seeking strategic partnership with India because of its market, growing economy, global heft and as a partner through various groupings like AUKUS, I2U2 which are essentially aimed at containing China's influence," he added.
Aukus binds Australia, Britain and the US in a controversial security pact while I2U2 loosely groups India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
In April, Britain offered to boost its military sales to India, the world’s largest arms importer.
Praful Bakshi, a former military spokesman, speaking to RFI, argued the United States had little choice but to accept India’s preference for Russian equipment.
"America is in need of India because of the leadership role our country is assuming in the Asia-Pacific region and so the United States wants India to negate China out there," he said.
"Besides, the US also knows our requirement in defense is based on Russian equipment and India cannot suddenly switch to American equipment," added Bakshi, a former pilot of Soviet-origin MiG fighter jets.
But Russia's share of arms imports to India slipped from 69 percent to 46 percent in recent years as Western suppliers moved in, according to think-tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The Congress waiver also came two days before India and China decided to "maintain stability" along their borders where rival armies are locked in a face-off since clashes in 2020 left many soldiers killed.
Last December, India took delivery of the first of the five S-400 systems from Russia as part of a 2018 contract worth €5.3 billion and deployed it in the Punjab bordering nuclear rival Pakistan.
The remaining systems are likely to be set up along India’s eastern frontier where a border dispute with China led to a brief but bloody war in 1962.
"Also, no one should tell us what to defend ourselves with," Bakshi, the former defense ministry spokesman said, referring to prickly neighbor China which also possesses the S-400 Triumph long range missiles of Russian origin.
The US Senate must now approve the waiver of a law passed in 2017 in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The Russian missile deal came two years after India purchased 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France for €9 billion euros in an outright deal.
Dassault Aviation has so far delivered 35 Rafales and is now in a race with American rival Boeing to supply maritime planes for India’s first locally-made aircraft carrier scheduled to set sail on 15 August.
Eight of the Rafales were deployed on China’s borders at the start of last week’s bilateral military talks, an official told RFI.
Delhi accuses China of illegally occupying 38,000 square kilometers of India’s Ladakh where the two rival armies have deployed thousands of troops since the 2020 clash in the Himalayan desert.