Washington, DC – US Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis saved the day for visiting Indian federal Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on the question of Indian choice to buy Russian defense equipment and inviting US sanctions in the process.
At the press availability during an advanced honor cordon welcoming Indian Minister of Defense Sitharaman to the Pentagon, Secretary Mattis reiterated his answer that the US would resolve the pending sanction under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), on India for Delhi deciding to buy the multi-billion dollar S-400 missile defense system from Russia.
The US Defense Secretary saved his counterpart from an awkward moment by replying to a Pentagon journalist’s question addressed to the Indian Defense Minister, “Madame Minister, why did you ultimately go with the S-400 system?” Mattis said, “We will work everything out. Trust me.”
Earlier, responding to a similar question on the subject of Russian S-400 system buying by India, Mattis said, “We’ll work all this forward. This is the normal collaboration and consultation that we have with each other.”
With two months already passed since the day the deal was announced, Secretary Mattis hinted in his remarks about a solution but still not clear whether the Trump administration will issue a waiver or follow through with any penalties. India needs a presidential waiver to get around the punitive sanctions.
Mattis Welcomes Sitharaman
Welcoming the visiting Indian Minister, Secretary Mattis said, “The US-India relationship is a natural partnership between the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies.”
Recalling the 2+2 Ministerial held in New Delhi earlier, Secretary Mattis stressed the role of India “for a safe, secure, prosperous and free Indo-Pacific, underpinned by respect for the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of all nations.” Mattis further expressed, “US appreciation for India’s leadership as a stabilizing force in pursuit of that vision, promoting peace and security across the region and the globe.”
Addressing the audience, the Indian Minister noted that the bilateral US-India “relations are based on common democratic values, enduring, strong political and popular support in both our countries,” adding, “There is a growing mutual trust, and also, the confidence in our defense partnership, which all bodes very well for the future. In this direction, we are encouraged by the strategic importance attached to the India-US defense relationship in the new US National Security Strategy.”
In a readout of the bilateral meeting, Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White didn’t mention the subject of the Russian S-400 purchase by India or the looming US sanctions.
The readout stated: “Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis met with Minister of Defense Nirmala Sitharaman today for the second time in many months, to reaffirm the long-standing defense relationship between the United States and India during the 2018 Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM-Plus). The leaders discussed a broad range of defense and policy issues, and the Secretary thanked Minister Sitharaman for her country’s commitment to a prosperous, enduring relationship with the United States. They agreed to continue expanding cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia.”
In addition to US Secretary Mattis and visiting Indian Minister Sitharaman, others present at the advanced honor cordon were: Ajay Kumar, Secretary, Department Of Defence Production, India; Ken Juster, US Ambassador to India; John Rood, US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; Lieutenant General Charles Hooper, Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency; Richard Spencer, Secretary, US Navy; Michael Griffin, US Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering; Joe Kernan, US Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Staff.
Indian Minister Sitharaman visited the Arlington National Cemetery, America’s “most hallowed ground,” where she laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a gesture reflected in Mattis’ comments later.
“On behalf of our department and all of our service members, thank you for paying your nation’s respect at Arlington National Cemetery this morning. We’re grateful,” Mattis said, welcoming the defense minister at the Pentagon.
Mattis said Sitharaman’s presence at the wreath-laying made clear that the US-India military relations were not “defined by brittle or empty words” but by the human aspect of partnership steeped in recognition of the two nations’ respective sacrifices and the cause of peace, friendship, and freedom.
Further to the West Coast
Sitharaman – the first woman defense minister of India – as part of her five-day trip to the US, is now headed to the US West Coast in California to visit the Defense Innovation Unit of the Department of Defense and the Indo-Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii. Secretary Mattis mentioned it in his remarks, saying, “I wish you safe travels as you venture on to our Defense Innovation unit in California and our Aloha State in the coming days.”
She arrived in Washington DC on Sunday. Her official visit started on Monday with a visit to the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the US State Department, where she signed the condolence book of the former 41st US President George H W Bush, whose funeral is scheduled for December 5.
Tejinder Singh was the Founder and Editor of India America Today, and is the inspiration for Global Strat View.