Sanction as action: India doesn’t favour unilateral sanctions

August 17, 2021 4:40 AM

But has explored restrictive measures, most recently on Pakistan and China

After the 2019 Pulwama attack and last year’s border stand-off and Galwan Valley clash with China, New Delhi banned Chinese apps, restricted Chinese investment in Indian start-ups, and withdrew MFN status from Pakistan.

By Sameer Patil

For decades, the US and the EU have imposed sanctions to coerce their adversaries to change policies. In recent months, there has been a stream of sanctions from the West on Russia for its cyberattacks and its treatment of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and on China for its human rights violations against the Uighurs.

Now, the reverse is happening. On June 10, China passed a new domestic law to counter western sanctions, which mandates travel bans, asset freezes and commercial restrictions against individuals and entities involved in designing and implementing the US and EU sanctions. In March, China had sanctioned the EU and British parliamentarians, academics and think tanks. Likewise, in April, Russia placed travel bans on EU officials and, most recently, on Canadian officials in retaliation to their sanctions against Russia.

The new sanctions and counter-sanctions regimes reflect a paradigm shift in the post-Cold War era. In contrast to the multilateral sanctions legitimised through the UNSC, countries are imposing their own unilateral or autonomous sanctions to fulfil their foreign policy objectives. A key feature is secondary sanctions, which seek to penalise third parties that commercially engage with sanctioned countries.

Sanctions are defined as restrictive measures. Accordingly, countries classify non-tariff barriers, quarantines, selective purchases and state-led consumer boycotts, as sanctions. Experts are unclear if these amount to sanctions in the strictest sense of the term. They are certainly part of wider economic statecraft that countries use against their adversaries.

The US tops the charts in thrusting sanctions, as seen in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) of 2017, under Trump administration. The centrality of the American dollar in the global financial system ensures compliance with these sanctions, even from those opposing them. As Ivan Timofeev of the Russian International Affairs Council observed at a seminar by Gateway House and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Chinese and Russian companies have complied with US sanctions, notwithstanding their government’s negative attitude. The US is followed by the EU, which has used sanctions to tackle issues outside the UN framework, like upholding the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the case of Russia, against Turkey’s drilling activities in Mediterranean Sea, and China’s human rights violations against the Uighurs.

Experience of sanctions over the decades reveals these are effective vis-à-vis smaller countries with limited abilities, as in the case of Libya in 2003, where UN and US sanctions forced its government to dismantle the weapons of mass destruction programme. But with larger countries like Russia and China, they merely delay or slow down economic development and, worse, rarely change behaviour.

In this free-for-all sanctions era, where does India stand?
India had been subjected to sanctions after the nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. They benefited the country as it achieved self-reliance in space and nuclear tech. Now, with India due to its purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia and its involvement in the Chabahar port of Iran, it could be subjected to secondary sanctions by the US under the CAATSA. New Delhi has a selective exemption for Chabahar port and may get a similar waiver for the S-400 purchase, but already US sanctions have adversely affected New Delhi’s ties with Moscow and Tehran.

India does not favour unilateral sanctions, but it has explored its own set of restrictive measures. After the 2019 Pulwama attack and last year’s border stand-off and Galwan Valley clash with China, New Delhi banned Chinese apps, restricted Chinese investment in Indian start-ups, and withdrew MFN status from Pakistan. Will India too consider becoming a sanctioning nation, imposing full-fledged sanctions on China or Pakistan for their destabilising actions? Probably not.

Multilateral sanctions can tackle challenges to global security. But their unilateral use hurts their efficacy as they impact global governance processes and institutions. To engineer a shift to the UN multilateral sanctions process, India must advocate for reforms that restrict their impact on third parties, limit their duration of application and follow ethical principles.

The author is fellow, International Security Studies Programme, Gateway House, Mumbai

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