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Britain should develop stronger ties with a rising India

Over the past few months, Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, has been embraced by foreign governments all over the world. In May, Modi received a ‘rockstar’ reception in Australia before making his first official state visit to the United States (US). He then jetted off to Egypt and France, where Emmanuel Macron, the French President, awarded him a Legion of Honour medal. During these visits, Modi was swarmed by members of the Indian diaspora in each country eager to catch a glance of the leader who is boasting one of the highest approval ratings in the world.

This heightened attention is not a coincidence, and is a reflection of India’s rising economic and geopolitical importance. Indeed, in April this year, India surpassed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the world’s most populous country. The rapid rise of the Indian technology sector and the country’s young population is also positioning the South Asian nation to become a major economic power for decades to come; India currently has one of the fastest growing economies in the developing world and is projected to overtake Japan and Germany in becoming the world’s third largest economy by 2030.

India’s rising global prominence comes at a time when major economic and military powers such as the US and United Kingdom (UK) have begun to shift their focus towards the Indo-Pacific in an endeavour to better integrate themselves into the regional economic and security order. This shift is due to multiple factors, not least the future economic potential of the Indo-Pacific and increasing assertiveness of the PRC. In fact, strategic alignment between New Delhi and many free and open nations on the PRC is a key development driving engagement.

Similar to most of the countries Modi recently visited, India’s bilateral relationship with and public opinion of the PRC is deteriorating. Despite large trade relations (the PRC is India’s second largest trading partner with Chinese imports to India causing a trade deficit of US$101 billion (£78 billion) in 2022 for India) and being co-members of the BRICS group, four major issues prevent bilateral relations from flourishing anytime soon: border disputes in Kashmir and the Himalayan region; the PRC’s support for insurgents in Northeastern India; India’s position as a base for Tibetan refugees and the Tibetan government-in-exile; and, the PRC’s strong bilateral relationship with Pakistan. 

The border disputes between India and the PRC, mainly focused on the territories of Kashmir and Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh, have been ongoing for more than six decades. Many of the conflicting claims derive from the 1962 war between India and the PRC, which ended in Chinese gains and the cementing of the ‘Line of Actual Control’ which has defined the de facto border between the countries ever since. Furthermore, encroachment from the PRC within Bhutanese and Nepalese territory, as well as the possibility of Beijing limiting the flow of the Brahmaputra River to India, have destabilised the relationship further. 

Although unresolved, there was not much international attention paid to the India-PRC border dispute until, in 2020, large skirmishes between the Indian Armed Forces and the People’s Liberation Army erupted in Ladakh and along the Sikkim-Chinese border. The sudden return of violence between the two countries led to a significant shift in India’s view towards the PRC, leading to widespread popular boycotts of Chinese-made goods among Indian citizens and the banning of over 200 Chinese apps by the Indian government.

The PRC’s deepening relationship with Pakistan has also strained the India-PRC relationship. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), announced in 2015 as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), signalled a new phase in both Beijing’s presence in South Asia and in its long-standing partnership with Islamabad. The Gwadar Port, located on the Arabian Sea in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, is operated by the China Overseas Port Holding Company and offers Beijing direct access to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, circumventing the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea. The potential for the PRC to use the Gwadar Port as a base to project their naval power in the Indian Ocean, a prospect viewed by many as a mere matter of time, confronts New Delhi with a new direct naval threat on its western border.

As these points of geopolitical tension between India and the PRC have intensified, the room for strategic alignment between New Delhi and many free and open countries, not least the UK, has expanded. However, the leaders of certain countries attempting to court India into a stronger economic and geopolitical partnership are nevertheless facing an issue which has been constant in India’s foreign policy for decades: its stern non-alignment. 

Non-alignment is simple in a bipolar world of two competing blocs, but in a multipolar world it becomes much harder to navigate the choppy waters of uncertainty. Moreover, the rise of the PRC (and its direct challenge to Indian security) and New Delhi’s desire to become not only a regional but a global power are contesting this philosophy. As Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Indian Minister of External Affairs, has said,‘non-alignment was a term of a particular era and geopolitical landscape’, highlighting how India’s foreign policy may become much more flexible than its Cold War origins. And this makes sense, given in a multipolar system India will have little choice but to move towards integrating itself more concretely with regional and international partners.

The UK is uniquely positioned to strengthen its bilateral relationship with India, something which would further establish and entrench His Majesty’s (HM) Government’s Indo-Pacific ‘footing’. The presence of Indian students and a large Indian diaspora in the UK is an essential point of connection between the countries. As of 2021, there are over 1.8 million British citizens of Indian descent living in the UK, including over 40,000 Indian nationals studying at British higher education institutions, making it one of the largest and potentially most influential Indian diaspora communities in the world. Furthermore, India remains a member of the Commonwealth, and the influence of the English language (India boasts the second-largest population of native English speakers in the world) as well as the British education and common law systems have had a significant influence on Indian politics and society. Beyond these cultural factors, the UK already has a military presence in nearby Nepal, the British Gurkhas Nepal – a recruiting office and administrative centre of the British Army located outside of Kathmandu.

HM Government should also ensure it views Indian tensions with the PRC in their own right, and not merely as bilateral issues between Beijing and New Delhi.

The ‘2030 roadmap for India-UK future relations’ is the current framework under which HM Government views its bilateral partnership with New Delhi, connecting a strengthening of relations between the two countries with the UK’s larger Indo-Pacific strategy. Despite the historic connections and positive vision for the future espoused by both sides, Britain still has much more to do if it is to deepen significantly its relationship with India.

Firstly, there has not been any significant deepening of ties at the strategic level, with the Quad being India’s preferred arrangement for multilateral security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which Britain is not a part of. Secondly, the implementation of the wildly anticipated post-Brexit UK-India free trade agreement (FTA) has been stalled, with the two nations reaching the eleventh round of negotiations with no end in sight. Lastly, Modi has not made an official state visit to the UK in over eight years, and since then has only come to Britain for international summits – promised ‘annual exchanges of visits at the prime minister level’ are yet to materialise. In comparison, so far during his premiership, Modi has visited the US eight times, France seven times, and Germany six times. 

HM Government should make the strengthening of bilateral relations with India a major focus of its foreign policy, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister who is also of Indian descent, should invite Modi to London for an official state visit as soon as possible, something which would undoubtedly be greeted with much fanfare by the British-Indian community. An annual summit of ministers between India and the UK, as stipulated in the ‘2030 roadmap’, should also be instituted as soon as possible, with bilateral summits in London and New Delhi planned for the next few years. Similarly, HM Government should look towards the formalisation of security relations between India and the UK under an annual security dialogue which focuses on maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea; naval power and cyber security should also be central. Lastly, HM Government should continue to negotiate with India over the completion of a bilateral FTA, no matter how onerous negotiations may be. An FTA should, importantly, take advantage of India’s increasingly potent technology industry. 

HM Government should also ensure it views Indian tensions with the PRC in their own right, and not merely as bilateral issues between Beijing and New Delhi. Indeed, as the UK looks to entrench its Indo-Pacific ‘footing’, and India continues to rise in geopolitical and economic importance, such issues will matter more for the UK, and the international order more broadly.

Jason Beck is Charles Pasley Intern at the Council on Geostrategy. He is currently completing his Master of Arts in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies with a focus on International Economics and Finance in Eurasia.

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