India and Britain: the new special relationship?

Britain's governing coalition has promised 'a new special relationship', on the heels of perceived successive diplomatic blunders under Labour administrations. However, drawing closer to India will require messy compromises and a realistic assessment of the price of partnership.

By Shashank Joshi for

After a British coalition government emerged from the rubble of a hung parliament, the formal agreement between the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties promised 'a new special relationship'. This was not, however, the predictable supplication to Washington. The envisioned suitor was India. In the seven-year long shadow of the Iraq War, Britain has chafed under the weight of its oldest 'special relationship', which was ritualistically and loudly renewed by Foreign Secretary William Hague and his US counterpart, Hilary Clinton, this month. Despite sporadic flirting with the idea of a distancing from Washington, the British establishment has too much at stake, intelligence and intellectual proximity, to carry out the threat meaningfully.

Nor has Europe afforded a viable alternative, with its leaders having exhausted their last ounces of political capital on a bruising and anticlimactic battle to implement the Lisbon Treaty, which has ultimately failed to fashion the basis for a unified voice on foreign policy. The Greek debt crisis has also paralysed other business in Berlin and Paris, at the same time as underscoring the centrality of the eurozone to the larger European project and, therefore, Britain's relative marginalisation. This weariness with traditional allies now looks set to elicit a modest but noticeable shift from Britain. But this has been a process initiated not in the gilded Foreign Office, but in the Conservative Party headquarters of Millbank.

As early as January 2007, William Hague first road tested the phrase - 'solid but not slavish' - that he would use three years later to frame his vision of the transatlantic relationship. Alongside this barely-veiled critique of then Prime Minister Tony Blair, Hague also promised to 'shift more political weight' to the Asia Pacific, and India in particular. Even earlier, David Cameron had visited New Delhi less than a year after becoming Leader of the Opposition. He wrote then that 'it is time for Britain and India to forge a new special relationship', adding that 'India has established beyond argument, through its economic and political success, its right to a seat at the top table. India, one of the great civilisations of the world, is truly great again'.

Proclaiming special relationships is a relatively costless activity, until the daily business of diplomacy begins. But Cameron and Hague now find themselves in power, and show no signs of placing India on the backburner. A specific manifesto commitment was the first sign of seriousness. Then on 25 May the Queen's Speech, the traditional account of a government's legislative programme, starkly promised 'an enhanced partnership', all the more remarkable for the absence of both the United States and China from the text.

A rocky basis for a special relationship?

The thirteen years of New Labour's rule coincided with an economic transformation in India, a tide whose ripples were keenly felt in Britain as Indian investment in the country rocketed and some of the former's most totemic assets, like Jaguar Land Rover, came under Indian ownership. Yet in many ways, the Conservative inheritance from the government is not a happy one. The last time India was mentioned in a Queen's Speech was in the first of the Blair government on 1997, with a reference to an impending state visit. It was on that visit that New Labour's first foreign secretary, Robin Cook, overshadowed the occasion by offering to 'mediate' between India and Pakistan in the disputed territory of Kashmir. India's then leader, IK Gujral, reportedly reacted by declaring that 'Britain is a third-rate power nursing illusions of grandeur of its colonial past'. In 2002 Cook's successor, Jack Straw, stated that Kashmir was 'unfinished business'. In contradiction of the Indian stance that Kashmir is an integral part of India, he suggested that the issue of 'who should run Kashmir was never fully resolved'.

Then in 2009 another foreign secretary, David Miliband, now a frontrunner for the Labour leadership, provoked fury by connecting the unresolved status of Kashmir and the occurrence of regional terrorism. This appeared reasonable to Western ears, but the implication that groups with avowedly global ambition like Lashkar-e-Taiba would be mollified by dialogue over Kashmir was rightly seen as profoundly mistaken, as well as indifferent to the Pakistani state's complicity in the persistent violence. This year Denis MacShane, a Labour MP and former minister, wrote that Kashmir's insurgency since 1989 represented 'probably the biggest bloodbath of Muslims in recent times under the Indian army occupation', rhetoric that, had it come from the government, would have prompted a meltdown in relations.

This litany of diplomatic blunders underscores both the acute Indian sensitivity to what is regarded as a purely internal matter to be dealt with on a bilateral basis, but also the willingness of British politicians to touch on the rawest of Indian nerves. This is partially an electoral issue. Pakistani Muslims comprise the largest share of British Muslims overall, and the bulk of the former group hail from the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, known in Pakistan as 'Azad Kashmir'. Kashmir has also, like Palestine and Chechnya, become a focal point of discontent. A poll of British Muslims from 2004 showed that 79 per cent were 'very concerned' about the dispute, more than education or health. Successful elections in Kashmir from 2002 have drawn the sting of criticism from other governments, but popular anger lingers.

This is of importance because 'enhanced partnerships' are not willed into existence; they are forged in the messiest of diplomatic compromises. Some of the most significant upticks in US-India relations occurred when Washington reversed or diminished its own activism on Kashmir, for instance pressuring Pakistan after it invaded India in 1999, a year later rejecting the idea of Kashmiri secession and stressing the sanctity of the line of control, and in 2002 praising the Kashmiri elections as 'one step forwards in a process of determining the will of the Kashmiri people'. Shortly after Obama assumed office, his administration was forced to backtrack on plans to include Kashmir in the remit of regional envoy Richard Holbrooke after behind the scenes lobbying.  Whether one approves of these shifts or not, they were indispensible lubricants to the rapprochement that followed.

A question of what Britain can do for India

Even if a Conservative government feels less electorally threatened by aligning British policy on Kashmir with India's aversion to external involvement, this does not dissolve Britain's enduring reliance on Pakistan both for intelligence regarding terrorist plots directed at Britain (multiple attempts have been foiled through cooperation), issues connected to British citizens visiting Pakistan, and Pakistani action on the real bases of the Afghan insurgency. Pakistan continues to attack the Pakistani Taliban whilst tolerating and extending support to a host of other groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network.

Britain's security establishment harbours few illusions about these illicit ties, but largely maintains an expedient silence. It may be that Pakistani policy, in anticipation of a precipitate American withdrawal, is deemed in London to be quite independent of British support. This is likely to be a realistic judgment. In that case, an incremental diplomatic realignment could ensue, with Britain practicing a steely silence on Kashmir and tightening its rhetoric on Pakistan's links to militants. Britain will not in the near future agree with India on Kashmir, but it could find itself compromising. This in itself would be a significant step towards the relationship Cameron envisages. Whether or not one endorses closer ties to India, these are the likely parameters within which it must take place.

This remains, however, an objective of some ambition. As one senior Indian diplomat has put it, 'India does not give the Europeans too much political importance because the Europeans do not individually or collectively significantly affect India's core political and security concerns'.  Effective alliance building requires not just selective contortions in policy but also powers of patronage. The Indo-US alliance has been transformed beyond recognition in recent years, but the pillars of that shift include key arms sales - such as long-rage reconnaissance planes and amphibious landing platforms - and the civil nuclear agreement finalised in 2008, which constituted an American legitimisation of the Indian nuclear arsenal. Over the next half-decade, India could spend up to $50 billion on capital expenditure for defence, and Britain is eager to capture a portion, during a lethargic period in the global market. Yet India's acquisitions will be guided by a political logic, and Britain simply bargains with less, in terms of influence, technology, and weapons.

A decade of largely passive subordination to American policy has not helped in this regard. France's decision to refrain from condemning India's nuclear tests in 1998, and its expanding of nuclear cooperation with India, are only two points of contrast. The Conservative Party is naturally Atlantacist by temperament, constraining the leadership's freedom of manoeuvre on contentious issues such as nuclear disarmament, armed intervention in the future, and Pakistan, which remains a 'major non-NATO ally' to the United States. All these matter, or will matter, a great deal to India. Additionally, there are other costs to empowering rising states, as Washington found this month when Turkey and Brazil delivered a deal on the Iranian nuclear issue that was seen as less than helpful for the effort to impose sanctions. The view from New Delhi frequently differs, sometimes considerably, from that in Whitehall or Downing Street, and it would be staggeringly naïve to suppose that India can be co-opted in service of a Western agenda. Special relationships have their price, and though the high-level attention bodes well, it is not yet clear whether Britain is able or willing to stump up.

Britain's colonial inheritance also shapes the context in which Cameron and Hague will act. Historical ties have proved as much a hindrance as help, as Cook's disastrous 1997 visit demonstrated. The Indian diaspora in Britain is large, but unlike its American counterpart, it is not cohesive and remains politically ineffectual. Nonetheless, the infrastructure of diplomacy, including a large diplomatic presence in the subcontinent, is a useful base for expanding cooperation and strengthening trust, frayed by mutual apathy in recent years. Moreover, the UK has long supported India's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and there remains scope to support institutional reform to better represent India, along with other emerging powers, in other fora such as the international financial institutions. On regional security issues such as Afghanistan, the Anglo-American end game accords more closely with that of India than Pakistan, the latter resenting the ebbing of its influence after 2001 and fearful of a Karzai regime sympathetic to India.  Though Britain's weight in these matters is vanishingly small in the context of its senior American partner, this potential overlap has been obscured by the centrality of Pakistan to the prosecution of the war.

The low-hanging fruit, particularly economic agreements and lofty rhetoric, will dominate the first stage of the diplomatic agenda. (The prospective India-EU free trade agreement was fast-tracked this week, though this was unrelated to the new government). It is Britain's subsequent calculus, however, on which the relationship will hinge. In recent years the country's geopolitical capital has, like its economy, dwindled. A fulfilment of the coalition's ambitious plans will require careful management, as much listening as talking, and a clear-eyed understanding of the mutual accommodation that special relationships demand.

Shashank Joshi is a Graduate Student at the Department of Government, Harvard University.

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