Main Image Credit Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France. Courtesy of Stefan Rousseau/PA Images.
The UK and India are getting closer. But some of the key building blocks of the relationship still need to be laid.
With the political focus in the UK dominated by both Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson may appear to be a surprising choice for India to select as chief guest at its Republic Day Parade later this month. This honour has long been used as a diplomatic signal by New Delhi to indicate a country which it considers of growing importance, but ties with London have been underwhelming for years.
The same pandemic which demanded Johnson’s attention also precluded his attendance in Delhi. Nonetheless, the British swiftly reciprocated India’s heightened attention. Johnson has invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the G7 summit in the UK in June and named Deputy National Security Adviser Alex Ellis as the next high commissioner to India. Taken together, these developments hint that after years of inattention, the UK and India may finally undertake a concerted effort to deepen their bilateral partnership.
For the past two decades, successive UK governments have sought a closer relationship with India, but these feelings were rarely reciprocated. The UK’s perceived softness on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and London’s concerted effort to make China the anchor of post-Brexit economic policy suggested a lack of congruence with India’s strategic priorities. When combined with a belief that the UK was peripheral to geopolitical developments in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi instead prioritised traditional partners like Russia and France or their expanding strategic ties with the US.
Recent changes in UK policy, however, have altered Indian assessments. The UK has co-sponsored efforts at the UN to designate the leader of the Pakistan-based Kashmiri extremist group Jaish-e-Mohammed as a ‘global terrorist’ as well as to name and shame Pakistan for failing to prevent the financing of terrorism. Johnson’s government is actively seeking to reduce economic exposure to China and prevent future Chinese involvement in its critical infrastructure as exemplified by the decision to ban Huawei equipment from the country’s 5G network.
Plans for the UK’s post-EU foreign policy indicate a significant ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific. ‘Global Britain’ hopes to play a meaningful role east of Suez by joining regional free trade agreements in Asia and increasing the Royal Navy’s presence, in addition to deepening ties with partners in the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia and beyond. Together with the relaxation of UK visa restrictions that will benefit Indian students and high-skilled workers, these changes suggest there is more scope for improvement in UK–India ties than in the past.
Broader Strategic Partnerships
At the same time, the Modi administration has a greater appreciation of the value of strategic partnerships with like-minded European countries. As the confrontation between the US and China has grown, India has deepened its cooperation with democratic middle powers in Asia like Australia and Japan. Similar attention is now being given to countries like the UK, who can contribute to a collective effort to help build a resilient order in the Indo-Pacific. The need to develop such relationships has been given even more urgency by India’s protracted border standoff with China that erupted into deadly violence last June.
The UK’s attractiveness to India lies in the fact that it is, in cricket terms, a solid ‘all-rounder’. Although the UK may not be India’s number one partner for trade, defence hardware or political cooperation, it is one of the few countries besides the US that is important in every single one of these dimensions.
The fact that both the UK and Indian governments want to upgrade their partnership is no small development, but translating this desire into action will require significant effort across a range of policy areas.
Challenges and New Venues
Economics typically provides the foundation for enduring cooperation; however, the UK–India trade relationship is anemic. Neither country is a leading export market for the other, and hopes for a free trade agreement face too many political obstacles to be likely in the near term.
The picture is comparatively rosier when it comes to investment. The UK is a leading source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in India as its businesses have put more than $30 billion into the country over the past decade. Notwithstanding high-profile investments such as the Tata Group's acquisition of Jaguar Land Rover, India is not a top-10 source of FDI for the UK by value. An investment treaty could help deepen the financial ties between the two countries, improving access for UK firms and enticing more Indian companies to invest in the UK.
Although India and the UK declared their relationship to be a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ 16 years ago, they lack a regular strategic dialogue between their respective defence ministers of the sort that New Delhi has with a number of other states. Indeed, the two countries’ defence chiefs have not met since 2017, which raises questions about the degree of high-level support for closer defence ties. Addressing this lacuna, as well as reaching an agreement on government-to-government defence sales, should be a key priority for Johnson’s visit. The latter will enhance the competitiveness of UK firms in meeting India’s need for fighter planes, submarines, aircraft carriers and perhaps even naval nuclear propulsion, all of which will enhance the capacity of the Indian armed forces.
Maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific is a concrete means for the two countries to put their strategic partnership into action since the UK and India have a shared interest in safeguarding the region’s sea lanes and bolstering a rules-based regional order. In particular, the two countries have longstanding partnerships and strategic equities in the western Indian Ocean region stretching from Mumbai to the Persian Gulf. Not only does this part of the world provide energy resources to much of the globe, but it also contains a number of small states who lack the ability to counter piracy, environmental challenges and other non-traditional security threats in their waters. Thus, there is both an opportunity and a need for the UK and India to cooperate in providing security, promoting development and enhancing sustainability in this region.
The ongoing collaboration between the UK and India on a COVID-19 vaccine – which was developed in the UK at Oxford University and will be produced en masse at India’s Serum Institute – highlights the importance of science and research to their bilateral relationship. Both India and the UK are world-leading innovation hubs, and in the digital era, cooperation in areas like renewable energy, artificial intelligence and health technology could become as important to their relationship as economic and defence ties. Capitalising on this potential will require enabling greater mobility for both talent and companies across the UK–India tech corridor.
After years of neglect, both the UK and India are getting serious about their bilateral relationship. Each country stands to gain from tapping the other’s strengths in areas like education, research, defence and technology. Though they will not agree on every single foreign policy issue, close cooperation between India and the UK is mutually beneficial and has the potential to shape events in the Indo-Pacific in positive ways.
The challenge at hand for both governments is to finally demonstrate Modi’s assertion that a UK–India partnership is an ‘unbeatable combination’.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.