Post-Johnson visit: a new path for UK-India ties?

The maiden official visit of Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister, to India as leader of the United Kingdom (UK) on 21st April and 22nd was a part of Britain’s staunch intent to strengthen bilateral ties with India as much as it was a part of its Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, as outlined in the Integrated Review[↗]. As the security crisis in Europe deepens and the European Union (EU) strives for strategic autonomy – through the Strategic Compass[↗] and with several of its members strengthening their stake in the Indo-Pacific – the UK sees India as a crucial economic and military ally in diversifying its markets (especially post-Brexit) and solidifying its role as an Indo-Pacific security provider ‘in the face[↗] of threats from autocratic states’.

The Integrated Review emphasises the deepening of British engagement in the Indo-Pacific through increased ties with like-minded partners such as India and Japan.

India’s importance in the UK’s strategic outlook stems from the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) rise as an assertive ‘systemic competitor’, whose increasing global influence as well as dubious trade and maritime practices require the cooperation of regional allies with shared values – and an already strong strategic security presence – in countering. At the same time, Britain intends to pursue its engagement with the PRC in trade and investment and in tackling transnational threats like climate change.

In this context, India as the PRC’s most important regional rival is a natural partner; it enjoys traditional influence over the Indian Ocean and long-standing partnerships in South Asia and Southeast Asia – the crucial crossroads for trade linkages and maritime pathways in the Indo-Pacific – while also being a vital trade partner of Beijing (despite high tensions post the 2020 Galwan conflict).

Johnson’s visit to India brought into focus several questions, such as whether the UK can capitalise on India’s ambitions to be a net security provider in the Indian Ocean and its strengths as a rising economy; what the prospects of India and the UK reconfiguring their ties within a realistic, and not overambitious, framework are; how the UK can further cooperate with India on supply chain resilience; and lastly, if Jonhson will succeed in his aim of weaning India off its dependence on Russian energy and military equipment.

The UK-India strategic partnership in a new geopolitical landscape

In the current intensified geopolitical climate, characterised by the raging war in Ukraine and the PRC’s intent to upend the existing global order, the UK and India will aim to put their past differences to the side. For instance, although the UK’s ‘close historical links[↗]’ with Pakistan and India’s support[↗] of the International Court of Justice ruling asking the UK to withdraw its ‘colonial administration’ in the Chagos Islands are pointed differences, they are unlikely to hinder strategic cooperation.

In 2021, through the UK-India Roadmap[↗] 2030, the two countries released their plans to build a ‘new and transformational Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’, reiterating their ‘shared vision of an open, free, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region’, as outlined in the Integrated Review. Although the roadmap’s intent is in the right direction, it is rather overambitious with fivefold aims: to strengthen people-to people contact; reenergise trade and investment; enhance defence and security; pursue climate action; and address global health challenges.

The UK-India comprehensive strategic partnership has been further boosted by Johnson’s visit: on 21st April, Johnson announced[↗] a host of commercial agreements with India worth £1 billion, with the areas covered ranging from electric buses to artificial intelligence. A day later, Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, and Johnson signed[↗] a new and expanded defence and security partnership; held talks with the aim of further expanding cooperation in diverse areas of defence, trade, and clean energy; jointly expressed concern for the humanitarian situation in Ukraine; and affirmed to complete a free trade agreement (FTA) by October 2022.

Johnson’s visit was especially aimed at promoting the conclusion of the UK-India FTA, which London has pushed for as part of its post-Brexit economic strategy. The FTA is predicted to boost[↗] the total trade between the UK and India up to £28 billion annually by 2035. The second round of FTA talks concluded in March, and the third round was reportedly paused due to geopolitical tensions over Ukraine. The announcement that the trade deal would be finalised by end of this year lays to rest any speculation about the FTA being stalled[↗] due to India’s neutral position regarding Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine.

In fact, in an indication of how London wants to ensure differences between the two countries do not overshadow cooperation, Johnson did not mention the delicate issue of India’s neutrality regarding the war in Ukraine during his visit. During the visit of Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, to India in March 2022, when she announced[↗] a new joint UK-India cybersecurity program, the UK, too, was clear[↗] about not ‘lecturing’ India on its neutral position. These actions show that Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine has had little impact on the UK-India partnership, despite their differences on the issue. It demonstrates the resilience of the relationship that both countries continue to build – as well as, crucially, the high importance that the UK accords to India within its international outlook.

Searching for comprehensive cooperation

In terms of cooperation in space, cybersecurity, vaccine, and environmental sectors, the possibilities for success are already promising[↗] as both countries share well-instituted dialogues. Global health has been a dominant point of international cooperation in the past several years, and the UK and India have been relatively successful[↗] in this endeavour: while their goal of equitable vaccine supply by April 2021 may not have been fully achieved, they have partnered in the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Initiative, cooperated in the United Nations Security Council, and collaborated through Oxford AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India to produce Covid-19 vaccines.

The April 2022 joint statement[↗] added to such existing programs and announced initiatives on malaria vaccines and on antimicrobial resistance, as well as a digital partnership between the Indian National Health Authority and the UK’s National Health Service – a major extension to their health partnership.

On energy security, with an aim to reduce dependence on imported hydrocarbons and adopt cheaper, more sustainable home-grown alternatives, both the UK and India plan[↗] to develop offshore wind ‘from the Celtic Sea to Dhanushkodi’ through a new UK-India Hydrogen Science and Innovation Hub. This would add to the UK’s $1.2 billion (£940 million) investment[↗] on government and private green energy projects in India, which was announced in 2021.

Additionally, London and New Delhi have increased synergy in the security and defence domains. The signing of a new defence cooperation agreement in April, in addition to the recently initiated UK-India Maritime Dialogue[↗] and the continuation of joint naval exercises[↗], marks significant progress in this regard. This focus on building a maritime partnership allows both countries to achieve their regional security goals and highlights Britain’s active role in the Indo-Pacific.

The UK has also decided to support and emphasise greater defence and security collaboration over the coming decade by creating an India-specific Open General Export Licence[↗] – a first in the Indo-Pacific – which will reduce the delivery time of defence procurements. Defence technology transfers[↗], including fighter jets and maritime technologies, are part of the measures intended to strengthen defence ties across land, sea, air, space, and cyber domains.

Yet, despite the obviously growing synergy between the UK and India, several areas of untapped potential remain in the partnership. Although it seems like an opportune extension of the expansive, but loosely defined, Roadmap 2030, whether the push to increase the visibility of their defence and security ties will translate into action remains to be seen. Similarly, on the question of increasing cooperation in bolstering supply chain resilience, either bilaterally or through the India-Australia-Japan-led Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, it would be a missed opportunity if the soon-to-be-finalised FTA does not cover this area of immense strategic concern. As London and New Delhi gradually enhance the scope and depth of their partnership, they should look to further identify such areas where closer cooperation can be mutually and strategically beneficial.

For India too, a closer relationship with countries such as the UK is emerging as a vital recourse in navigating the tumultuous geopolitical and security situation of its own neighbourhood. A stronger connection with the UK – which is also a close partner of all the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – is an important step. The UK has historical links to the Indo-Pacific region and considerable maritime capabilities. For New Delhi, a robust maritime and defence partnership with Britain, bolstered through strong economic links and greater connections in critical sectors like cybersecurity, outer space, and emerging technologies, is vital.

Dr Jagannath Panda is the Head of the Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Sweden.

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