By Asad Mirza
The recent bonhomie between India and the UK during the continuing Covid-19 pandemic indeed comes as a real surprise. The Indo-UK bilateral ties during the recent times can’t be labelled as one very strong or warm. One reason for this might be due to the wrong decisions or priorities set by the continuing British governments. During the last 25 years or so, at the cost of India, the British have preferred to pamper and strengthen its ties with China. Or as seen by the Indian establishment they have not been offered an equal seat at the table.
However, with Boris Johnson in office, who has ties with India stretching back to 25 years through his former wife Mariana Wheeler, the tide seems to be turning.
It was evident by the sudden visit of the British Foreign Secretary to India, during which an invitation by the Indian government inviting Johnson to be the chief guest at the country’s annual Republic Day parade, and a counter offer by the British government inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the G-7 meeting next summer, all came as pleasurable surprises.
The various causes and frictions for the ebb in the Indo-UK ties are varied, but now it seems that the UK under its Global Britain campaign/strategy is trying to give India its due place in the relationship.
According to sources, the recent foreign minister-level talks focused on five broad themes – connecting people, trade and prosperity, defence and security, climate change and health, besides the future role which India can play in the Indo-Pacific. Out of these, Indo-Pacific is one of the key areas to be watched.
Furthermore, Johnson’s India trip is being billed as focussing on strengthening bilateral trade ties and investment, and cooperation in various areas including defence, security, health and climate change.
Accepting the Indian invitation Johnson said: “I am absolutely delighted to be visiting India next year at the start of an exciting year for Global Britain, and look forward to delivering the quantum leap in our bilateral relationship that Prime Minister Modi and I have pledged to achieve.
“As a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, India is an increasingly indispensable partner for the UK as we work to boost jobs and growth, confront shared threats to our security and protect our planet.”
The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), describes ‘Global Britain’, as reinvesting in its relationships, championing the rules-based international order and demonstrating that the UK is open, outward looking and confident on the world stage. Besides taking a leading role in responding to global challenges and in making the most of opportunities for Britain.
Under this strategy the UK, looking ahead is trying to deal with post-Brexit uncertainty and trying to project itself as a re-emerging force at the global stage and particularly Asia. Thus, it is casting its gaze eastward, eyeing bilateral deals.
Last week, the UK announced new trade pacts with Singapore and Vietnam, which International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said would be “vital for the UK’s future as an independent trading nation”, and help make Britain a “global hub for services and technology trade”.
Touted as extending the UK’s footprint in Asia, this could also pave the way for similar pacts with other Association of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries, as Britain initiates to take a more active role in regional affairs in the Indo-Pacific.
Most international players see the Indo-Pacific as the region of the future. US is already taking undue interest in the regional affairs, with the UK and other players following closely. During his interactions in New Delhi, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had commented: “And certainly if you look at India and the Indo-Pacific region and take a long-term view, that is where the growth opportunities will be.”
Besides, growth it is also seen as challenging the Chinese influence in the region.
Strengthening UK’s bilateral relationship with India is a vital part of the ‘Global Britain’ campaign. In recent years, there have been constant appeals within the UK to shift its trade focus. After Brexit, the UK urgently needs to boost commodity trade with Asian countries and regain its reputation as “a great, global trading nation”.
The two countries’ burgeoning trade and investment relationship, is worth 24 billion pounds ($32 billion) annually and supports more than half a million jobs. Raab highlighted increased bilateral cooperation during the coronavirus pandemic, with India’s large pharmaceutical sector supplying more
than half of the world’s vaccines. At least a billion doses of Britain’s Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine are being manufactured at the Serum Institute in the western Indian city of Pune. Meanwhile, the UK has received 11 million facemasks and 3 million packets of Paracetamol from India during the pandemic, according to Downing Street.
Gao Jian of Shanghai International Studies University opines that the bilateral ties between the two nations have long struggled to realise their full potential. While India’s partnerships with many Western countries, including the US and France, though historically far less connected to India than Britain, have surged, the ties between Delhi and London continued to stagnate. Despite the intensive people to people contacts, impressive advances of the Indian diaspora in the British politics and businesses and substantive commercial relations, Delhi and London could not find that political trick which could rewrite their bilateral relations.
India is a rare potential partner in Indo-Pacific for the UK, given its economic growth potential and cultural ties. The UK covets India’s vast markets and large population. However, ties between the two have fundamentally changed during the last 30 years. India shows no special affection for its former colonial master. In the recent years India has resisted UK’s pressure to take over the mentorship of the Commonwealth. The Indians doesn’t want to be saddled with an organisation with colonial roots and be burdened with the financial costs of running an international organisation.
Moreover, UK drawing India in also suggests a strong strategic intention to confront China. UK-China bilateral relations have fallen to the lowest point in the recent times, after UK promoting Chinese students and tourists at the cost of Indians. This has always remained a bone of contention between India and the UK. Even the invitation to India to the forthcoming G7 summit is seen as a move widely interpreted as snubbing China.
Meanwhile, Chaand Nagpaul, the Chair of the Council of the British Medical Association, has casted doubts over the Johnson’s trip to India, saying it may not be possible if the current level of infection and spread continued in the UK. Let’s hope the best for ‘Global Britain’.
(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He was also associated with BBC Urdu Service and Khaleej Times of Dubai. He writes on Muslims, educational, international affairs, interfaith and current affairs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)