India-United Kingdom relations: a ‘quantum leap’?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s long awaited and much postponed summit with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, finally took place on 4th May 2021. This event was much anticipated, but shaped by ongoing Covid-19 mayhem sweeping through India during spring, ironically at a time when the United Kingdom (UK) was starting to emerge from Covid-19; in part thanks to supplies from India’s Serum Institute (SII), which were then curtailed as India faced a vaccine shortage crisis.

Context is everything, namely the UK’s return to an ‘East of Suez’ presence and ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific as embedded in the Integrated Review published in 2021. It is worth remembering that during the Brexit campaign it was trade opportunities with India that were frequently emphasised by campaigners like Johnson and Priti Patel, the subsequent Home Secretary, with a free trade deal with India high on the agenda once the UK had left the EU in 2020. The return to an East of Suez policy predates the Brexit referendum, first emerging as a term in 2013, and has subsequently referred to the increase in basing and deployments back into the Indian Ocean and further east since 2016.

This has brought the UK naval maritime relationship with India to the fore.The final context is of course the circumstances of the summit. Originally Johnson had been invited as special guest of honour for India’s Republic Day celebrations in January; a highly symbolic affair where India’s military might is on show. There was much talk of what substantive economic and security measures would be formally signed off then. In the event, Covid-19 disruption in the UK led to its cancellation. Pending agreements were put on ice, and documents left unsigned. 

Instead the two leaderships rescheduled this summit to a five day trip on 25th April, with the UK team due to be accompanied by a large business delegation. Five days was a substantive time, ready for Johnson to showcase his personal diplomacy, both for an Indian but also UK audience. Unfortunately for No. 10, an eruption of a virulent second wave of Covid-19 in India brought a reluctant rescaling of the trip, initially to one day and then to its entire cancellation. What then emerged was a Virtual Summit held during 4th May. Given the context, UK assistance with urgent oxygen supplies to India was one helpful lead-in.

After two failed attempts, did this virtual summit succeed in bringing what No. 10 called a ‘quantum leap’ in UK-India relations? Following the summit, the two countries’ Joint Statement proclaimed a ‘new and transformational Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ and formally ‘adopted’ the 2030 Roadmap for India-UK future relations.

Certainly some new technological and research agreements were signed, but of a narrow and uncontroversial nature, namely:

  • A Memorandum of Understanding on Telecommunications;
  • Joint Declaration of Intent on Digital and Technology;
  • Establishment of new high-level dialogues on technology;
  • Joint rapid research investment into Covid-19;
  • A partnership to support zoonotic research;
  • New investment to advance understanding of weather and climate science.

The continuation of the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) was also noted. 

However, what needs to be done is to analyse the substance behind the soaring rhetoric on a quantum leap in UK-India relations. The two criteria to judge this claimed quantum leap is with regards to economics and with regard to security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The first involves the UK post-Brexit ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, and the second involves the UK return to East of Suez.  There is some substance behind the rhetoric.

Firstly, with regard to economics, the UK hope has been for a full blown trade deal with India. In one sense the summit represents a disappointment as a Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement was not signed. Instead, the Joint Agreement recorded that both sides were committed to: ‘welcome’ an Enhanced Trade Partnership and give ‘consideration’ to an interim Trade Agreement to deliver early gains, while both recognised their ‘intent’ to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement.

Both governments also set a target of doubling UK-India trade by 2030. The Enhanced Trade Partnership lifts some restrictions (e.g. fruit and medical devices, benefiting the food, health and technology sectors) on UK exports to the Indian market, but what seems likely is a further two-step process, easy-picking interim trade agreement followed by a full blown free trade agreement. Structurally and politically the will seems present for this progression. Both leaders discussed the moves in the UK to allow extradition of fugitive Indian business magnates convicted in cases of corruption, as with Priti Patel’s decision over Nirav Modi in April 2021. On the geoeconomic front, in this Covid-19 world, and tacitly with China in mind, the Joint Statement registered their ‘support’ for global supply chains, though without indicating how they would do this.

Second, with regard to security, the summit recorded a deepening security relationship. As regards security in the Indo-Pacific, the Joint Agreement broadly agreed to ‘increase maritime cooperation’ for the future, pinpointing:

  • Inviting a UK Liaison Officer to India’s Information Fusion Centre;
  • Establishing a UK-India Maritime Dialogue;
  • Collaboration on maritime propulsion systems (i.e. for aircraft carriers);
  • Further naval exercises (with Operation Fortis highlighted);
  • Finalisation of a Logistics Cooperation Agreement (LCA).

These are positive moves, though still modest rather than a quantum leap. Probably an LCA would be the most substantial new feature, opening up the Nicobar and Andaman Islands to the Royal Navy. Mutual cooperation at Duqm would be an obvious area for cooperation. However, reciprocal Indian use of the UK base at Diego Garcia comes up against the continuing Indian political support (as in United Nations General Assembly votes) for Mauritian claims to the British Indian Ocean Territory, within which Diego Garcia is situated.

In retrospect, common security problems relating to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were underplayed in the summit outcomes. They were tacit and implied, rather than explicit and stated. One can understand such tacitness from the point of view of public diplomacy, but the danger remains that this reduces clear formulation and clear direction; which in turn can impede the effectiveness of policies and actions. Geostrategy (the locational imperative) involves clear application of exactly where common security problems are located, and for where policies are to be applied onto.

The common aim of the UK and India to develop a ‘free open and secure Indo-Pacific region’ was reiterated in the 2030 RoadMap, as was maritime cooperation to ‘promote freedom of navigation’, but without any specific sense that this was something that the PRC was the focus of, and where this would be applied. There was a touch of specificity in the 2030 Road Map, notably a partnership in the Western Indian Ocean.

Yet, this focus on the Western Indian Ocean where anti-piracy would be the obvious focus, suggested ignoring maritime partnership in the Eastern Indian Ocean, let alone the South China Sea, which would be more effective in constraining Chinese activities?

The score sheet for the summit is middling. The personal impact of Johnson might have enabled a more dramatic outcome if the earlier mooted visits had taken place. The Virtual Summit instead reflected the ongoing structural situation where economic and security convergence with India is slowly, but surely, working its way through both governments. There remains a difference of emphasis and urgency within this convergence. 

Post-Brexit, a free trade agreement with India is higher up the agenda for the UK than is a free trade with the UK for India. Post-Galwan, security cooperation with the UK (and others) to constrain the PRC in the Indo-Pacific is higher up the political agenda for India than is security cooperation with India in the Indo-Pacific for the UK. Nevertheless, both countries’ strategic vision, economic and security, is convergent in principle and is converging in practice. The political will is there even if the extra boost and political impetus of a face to face summit had to be delayed.

Dr David Scott is a former Lecturer in International Relations at the Brunel University, from where he retired in 2015. His focus is on international relations in the Indo-Pacific, as well as the rise of the People’s Republic of China and India.

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