Britain’s place in India’s Indo-Pacific outlook

India and the United Kingdom (UK) recently affirmed a comprehensive ten-year ‘roadmap’ to elevate their bilateral partnership and bolster collaboration in the Indo-Pacific. The December 2020 meeting between Dominic Raab, British Foreign Secretary, and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Indian Minister of External Affairs, saw India invite Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister, to attend its Republic Day celebrations as Chief Guest. Although London cancelled the visit due to Covid-19, the move nevertheless displayed the UK’s centrality in Indian growing foreign policy outlook.

Until recently, Brexit has dominated the UK’s domestic debates leaving little room for discussions on emerging geopolitical conundrums and the changing security landscape in the post-Covid-19 era. With a Brexit deal finalised, however, the international community has seen a much more proactive Britain with a more focused foreign policy, especially regarding Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Considering their budding strategic partnership, New Delhi has welcomed London’s emerging Indo-Pacific overtures. How does India perceive the UK within its strategic calculations vis-á-vis the Indo-Pacific, and what role can the UK-India partnership play in their future regional cooperation? 

The UK faces difficult foreign policy choices with erstwhile international rules and norms facing daily challenges. Alongside Covid-19-induced financial challenges, Britain must respond to a strikingly different geopolitical landscape due to Brexit and deteriorating ties with China. With the Indo-Pacific emerging as a new global focal point, the UK is re-evaluating its existing alliances and adopting a ‘more nuanced’ foreign policy. Even with a finalised Brexit deal, British businesses will seek to diversify their supply chains that are currently extremely Euro-centric. Although the EU is Britain’s largest trading partner, Brexit has brought substantial uncertainty in their economic relationship, making the EU-UK supply chains more vulnerable. Simultaneously, crumbling ties with China and the supply chain breakdown during the pandemic has forced the UK to reconsider its over-reliance on China, even as Liu Xiaoming, China’s Ambassador to the UK, cautioned London against decoupling. To this end, Britain’s strategic foresight needs to manoeuver between its current economic situation, souring ties with China, and its ambitious foreign policy that is carving to be a part of the Indo-Pacific narrative. 

Conducive to such manoeuvers, the time to upgrade the UK and India’s 2004 ‘strategic partnership’ to a comprehensive one has quickly arrived. The UK is emerging as a ‘like-minded’ trade, defence and political partner for India, especially under Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ agenda, announced in 2016 to deepen ties with Asia. Britain could build on its shared commitment to India by standing up for a multipolar global order based on multilateralism. The UK invited India to be more deeply involved with the Group of Seven (G7) economies, perhaps even in a permanent capacity. London’s emphasis on New Delhi within its geostrategic outlook will undoubtedly make the coming years exciting, bringing about a ‘quantum leap’ in their partnership with a multilateral overture.

Until recently, India and Britain have been at-odds on several junctures, such as over London’s softer approach towards Pakistan and its attempts to embed China as a cornerstone of its post-Brexit economic vision. Simultaneously, London’s absence from the Indo-Pacific moved India to cultivate relationships with other actors such as France alongside Japan, Australia and the United States (US). Now, however, India is embracing the UK’s ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, the UK has begun to show a positive policy change –setting the stage for reciprocity –vis-à-vis India; in 2019, London co-sponsored a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution to label Jaish-e-Mohammed, a global terrorist organisation operating from Pakistan, after a deadly attack on Indian-administered Kashmir.

Essentially, the United Kingdom is a natural partner for India, considering their shared goals in the current geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape.

The UK is also actively looking to diversify its supply chain risk and reduce its dependency on China, with London-Beijing ties witnessing considerable friction over human rights and national security – including British concerns over Chinese policy in Hong Kong. Besides, London’s decision to ban Huawei’s participation in the UK’s national 5G network shows how Britain and India can have an aligned regional outlook, encouraging New Delhi to see London as an Indo-Pacific partner. Increasingly, ‘Global Britain’ chimes with India’s own inclusive Indo-Pacific outlook.

Moving forward, India and the UK can find considerable synergy in their respective policies on China and Indo-Pacific approaches. As India looks to disengage with China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) while standing firm on its position and seeking to reaffirm its national security vis-á-vis China, and the UK looks to rebuild an independent foreign and security policy post-Brexit, both countries can coordinate their approaches to China. Such synergy could begin with coordination in regional institutions and frameworks such as the Australia-India-Japan led Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI). As Britain looks to bolster its economy and enhance its presence in the Indo-Pacific, the SCRI could serve as an ideal platform that would also allow India to expand its manufacturing and import-export base in the West. Meanwhile, while the India-European Union (EU) Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) remains at a standstill, London has an opportunity to conclude its own bilateral free trade agreement with India, particularly in critical sectors like pharmaceuticals, energy and defence.

As India faces a more significant challenge from China over their disputed border, and intensifying US-China rivalry, London’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific is a welcome development. India has notably shown a deeper focus on building strategic partnerships, wherein European powers have emerged as ‘natural partners’ in fostering a sustainable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. Germany’s official adoption of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ terminology; France and India’s growing momentum via the Trilateral Dialogue with Australia, preceded by Paris’s timely delivery of Rafale jets to India; and the EU’s ‘pivot’ to the Indo-Pacific with a multipolar vision are all factors aiding India’s outreach to Europe. Concurrently, India has built strong ties with Japan, Australia, South Korea and the US to deepen its Indo-Pacific security outlook. By identifying its own dynamic, India’s ties with Asian and European democracies should emerge as a crucial foreign policy tool to manage Indo-Pacific geopolitics. 

Against this background, Britain could emerge as a cohesive and well-rounded partner for India. As the UK enhances its partnerships with India’s natural Indo-Pacific partners, New Delhi and London can propel joint ventures and collaborations with third-countries. For instance, India and the UK have established bilateral maritime and army exercises (such as ‘Konkan’ and ‘Ajeya Warrior’). HMS Queen Elizabeth’s deployment to the Indo-Pacific in 2021 for exercises with Japan provides additional scope for India to engage in a maritime trilateral with the two countries. New Delhi and London could also initiate an annual defence and foreign ministerial (2+2) dialogue to boost defence ties and collaboration in the Indo-Pacific security structure. 

Britain and India are also active players in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO), where they could engage in trilateral or minilateral arrangements with regional countries, such as France. The UK and India’s combined commitment to ‘shared values, common law and institutions’ as fellow democracies – evidenced by Britain’s support for India’s UNSC bid – could also be furthered in the Indo-Pacific. Herein the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which London recently joined as a dialogue partner, is a prominent part of Britain’s post-Brexit economic plan; it also features centrally within India’s Act East Policy and Indo-Pacific outlook. Therefore, London and New Delhi could coordinate their outreach to the region and jointly explore pathways for deeper integration. Similarly, the Blue Economy forms an additional major area of potential cooperation. As Britain looks to harness its maritime potential through innovation and India builds critical maritime infrastructure to respond to new regional challenges, a UK-India partnership could draw on shared imperatives. Such cooperation could translate to regional forums like the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), offering a leadership alternative to small littoral states torn between US-China rivalry. 

Essentially, the UK is a natural partner for India, considering their shared goals in the current geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape. Although Britain’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific is a new development, it holds clout as a significant power – particularly with a permanent seat on the UNSC with strategic partnerships across Asia, Europe and the Americas. Strengthening UK-India diplomatic, political, economic and defence connections should be a priority in the coming times.

Dr Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Dr Panda is Series Editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.

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