India and UK share a multi-faceted partnership based on trade and investment, diaspora and cultural relations, technology and innovation, and security and defence. While there have been various irritants in the relations - such as colonial legacies, UK’s relations with Pakistan, widespread protests in front of the Indian High Commission against the Indian government’s decision to abrogate Article 370, issues related to the UK’s immigration laws, and its preference of China as the economic anchor in Asia – there has been consistent efforts on the part of both the governments in the past few years to reset the relations.
Recent political moves by the UK government – co-sponsoring of UNSC resolution to designate JeM chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist[i]; actively seeking to reduce its economic dependence on China and decreasing its involvement in critical infrastructure by banning Huawei from its 5G network[ii]; UK’s adoption of meritocratic immigration policy which includes two years of additional work visas post-degree[iii] – have sent out positive signals in India. Brexit has also played a critical role in expanding the scope of the bilateral relations with UK looking beyond continental Europe to forge new and renewed partnerships. Economically, UK was 14th[iv] largest trading partner of India in 2019-20 with a total trade volume of US$15.4 billion[v]. It is the sixth-largest investor in India accounting for US$ 30.4 million in April 2000-March 2021[vi].
These consistent efforts have generated positive momentum in the relations. The redefining of the British role in international politics post-Brexit has led the UK to look at India with a renewed focus. Moreover, with the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as the theatre for international politics and the critical role India plays in the region, it has become increasingly important for London to enhance its cooperation with New Delhi. For New Delhi the change in outlook is advantageous. It allows India to negotiate a trade deal with the UK, build military to military ties, expand the economic ties, coordinate positions on issues of mutual concerns and bypass the need to negotiate with Brussels.
The importance of India in the emerging Global Britain matrix was further highlighted in the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy released in March 2021. The document laid down the contours of Global Britain, and identifies India as a crucial player with which the UK should pursue a deeper engagement for “shared prosperity and regional stability, with stronger diplomatic and trading ties”.[vii] A further push to the partnership was provided by the Virtual Summit on 4 May 2021 between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Johnson which elevated the relations from strategic to a comprehensive strategic partnership. The virtual meeting unveiled an ambitious decade-long roadmap to enhance cooperation in areas like health, climate change, defence etc. The core of Roadmap 2030 is the negotiations of the interim free trade agreement by 2022. The paper looks at the Integrated Review and the Roadmap 2030 to analyse the trajectory of India-UK relations.
Integrated Review 2021
The UK government in March 2021 published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, laying out an ambitious blueprint defining the contours of Global Britain. According to the document, the UK will be a “soft power superpower”[viii] and would continue to take a lead role in tackling global challenges, conflict resolution, security, development and diplomacy. The government also released a command paper “Defence in a Competitive Age” in March 2021. A key outcome of both the papers was the distinctive “tilt to the Indo-Pacific region”. The papers together acknowledged that by 2030 “the geopolitical and economic centre of gravity will have shifted to the Indo-Pacific region.”[ix] It describes the region as the “centre of intensifying geopolitical competition with multiple potential flashpoints…with competition playing out in regional militarisation, maritime tensions and contest over the rules and norms linked to trade and technology.”[x] The UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt is based on three key factors – economic (recognising the potential of the area), values (promoting multilateralism, upholding international norms) and security (freedom of navigation, area is home to potential flashpoints like South China and East China Sea etc. and issues relating to nuclear proliferation, climate change).
India is recognised as an important partner in the region with which the UK would seek closer relations. The review calls for the transformation of India-UK cooperation across the full range of their shared interests. The vision is for “re-energised trade and investment, rooted in S&T and supporting levelling up in the UK and India alike.”[xi] It emphasises enhanced defence cooperation for a secure Indian Ocean and to expand their capacities to address global challenges like climate change, clean energy, healthcare etc. The conclusion of an enhanced trade partnership as a stepping stone for a comprehensive trade deal is also envisioned as a priority.
While the Integrated Review provides a blueprint for expanding India-UK partnership, the Roadmap 2030, agreed during the Virtual Meeting on 4 May 2021, elevated the relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. These two documents together highlight UK’s outlook towards an enhanced strategic role in the region while recognising the need for deeper cooperation with like-minded partners like India. The vision of Roadmap 2030 is “for revitalised and dynamic connections between our people; re-energised trade; enhanced defence and security cooperation that brings a more secure Indian Ocean Region and Indo-Pacific; India-UK leadership in climate, clean energy; and health that acts as a global force for good”[xii] – thereby highlighting the five key areas of cooperation.
First, people-to-people contact – the Roadmap recognises that India and UK share a robust people-to-people connect with almost 1.6 million Britons of Indian origin. The document calls for upgradation of institutional mechanisms to further strengthen the avenues for people-to-people connect in research and innovation, education, employment, culture and capacity building. A key aspect was the signing of an MoU on Migration and Mobility Partnership that will facilitate the movement of skilled professionals and students, and also address the issues related to combatting illegal migration. Under the aegis of the MoU, a new Young Professionals scheme was also launched whereby almost 3,000 young professionals can avail employment opportunities in the UK every year for a period of two years.
Second, trade and investment – the emphasis is laid on the conclusion of a Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement to boost market access, exports and strengthen the trade partnership. The Roadmap lays down the steps to conclude the trade agreement by 2022 – it emphasises the conclusion of pre-negotiations scoping phase by the end of 2021. It also identifies various sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, education, legal services etc. for market access through the removal of trade barriers. Prior to the Virtual Meeting, India and UK finalised trade and investment worth £1 billion. The package includes new Indian investments of approximately £533 million, which is expected to create 6,000 jobs in areas like health and technology - this includes an investment of £240 million by Serum Institute of India for expanding its operations in Britain. Also, the British businesses secured new export deals with India for approximately £446 million, which includes CMR Surgical exporting its next generation “Versius” surgical robotic system[xiii] to Indian hospitals.
Third, defence and security - the Roadmap 2030 identifies cyber, space, crime and terrorist threats, and free, open and secure Indo-Pacific as areas for enhanced defence and security cooperation between India and UK. Three features that stand out are – (i) the Western Indian Ocean is recognised as an area for enhanced maritime dialogue to promote open access and improve maritime cooperation. (ii) Defence collaboration through research, innovation, technology and industry is given preference to tackle common threats and operational challenges of the future. This is to be done through the development of new technologies and capabilities including G2G and B2B projects. (iii) The roadmap calls for holding of India-UK Cyber Dialogue by April 2023 and to strengthen bilateral cooperation in priority areas such as detecting and responding to malicious cyber activities, online threats and crimes, cybercrime investigation, capacity building and cooperation in emerging technologies and associated public safety risks.
Fourth, climate change - a key highlight in the roadmap is the plan to launch a global Green Grids Initiative at the CoP26 that is to be held later in the year at Glasgow. This will include political declaration by national leaders and increased technical, financial and research cooperation to help deliver India’s vision of ‘One Sun One World One Grid’. The emphasis has been laid on taking forward collaboration and sharing of best practices on low-cost climate appropriate technologies in areas like clean energy, e-mobility, sustainable financing, green business etc. The roadmap also called for mobilisation of institutional investments through Green Growth Equity Fund and National Investment and Infrastructure Fund in areas like renewable energy, waste management, and e-mobility. As India and UK are co-chairs of the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), they have called for support for the creation of multi-country Technical Assistance Facility and Fund (TAFF) to support Small Island Developing States to develop more resilient infrastructure.
Fifth, health – Covid-19 pandemic has bought health at the centre of all major discussions. The Roadmap 2030 aims at strengthening UK and India collaboration by combining their research and innovation to address health challenges. Under this, India and UK would develop a partnership on vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics and expand the UK-India Vaccines Hub to develop distribution policy, clinical trials, regulation, research and innovation related to Covid-19, to guarantee an equitable global supply by April 2022. It also emphasised on resilience of global medical supply chains to ensure critical supplies of healthcare and medical necessities.
With Brexit finally done behind it, the UK is trying to formulate a new foreign policy outlook based on the idea of showcasing the world its abilities and willingness to safeguard the global order and multilateralism. The decision to leave the EU allows the UK to look beyond Europe towards the dynamic economies of the Asian region. The Integrated Review is a reflection of this new reality - the Indo-Pacific tilt recognises the shifting gravity of international relations from Euro-Atlantic towards the Indo-Pacific – economically, strategically and diplomatically. It is natural that the UK is trying to position itself prominently here by “deepen[ing] our engagement in the Indo-Pacific, establishing a greater and more persistent presence than any other European country.”[xiv] It is seeking to cooperate with like-minded democracies in the region to protect the rules-based order. India has been pointed out as an important player in the region and an expansive cooperative agenda is imperative for enhanced partnership.
In a 2019 report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee titled Building Bridges: Reawakening UK-India Ties, it was stated that - “Despite strong ties across investment, education and culture—and a shared commitment to democracy and to the rules-based international order—the relationship is not fulfilling its potential. India’s place in the world is changing fast, and UK strategy has not yet adjusted to this new reality…The Government needs to adapt its strategy to India’s enhanced influence, doing more to recognise and respond to New Delhi’s priorities.”[xv] The Integrated Review and Roadmap 2030 are reflective of this changing outlook. Both recognise the role India plays in the region and the convergences of UK and India’s interests, along with opportunity to develop closer ties to act on issues of common concerns.
With its Integrated Review, the UK is trying formulate for itself a new role economically. The review highlights that apart from the EU, UK’s largest trading partner, it has “secured FTAs with 66 non-EU countries and have applied for accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), linking the UK to one of the most dynamic trading areas in the world.”[xvi] This also comes in the backdrop of the trade vulnerabilities that Covid-19 highlighted and the use of coercive diplomacy by China – which has led many countries to push for diversification of critical supply chains. In this context, the India-UK trade agreement as declared in the Roadmap is a welcome step to push forward their comprehensive strategic partnership. While the ambitions for India-UK trade agreement have been set high, the UK has already initiated the pre-negotiations scoping phase through consultations with its business leaders and civil society[xvii], India which is yet to begin the process, needs to start soon. The fact that India has not signed any major trade deals in the past few years do not necessarily send a positive signal. However, with many countries now trying to decouple from China, the Indian government has projected India as a viable alternative and is eager to negotiate trade deals. This is visible with the declaration of resumption of broad-based Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) negotiations with the EU. While, the trade deal will work in favour of both India and the UK - how far they will succeed in signing a limited trade deal by 2022 remains to be seen.
Similarly, in terms of defence and security, the UK is aiming to project its capabilities through deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the British Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, which will lead an allied task force into the region. This has been pegged as the UK’s return to ‘East of Suez’ and demonstrating “the UK’s ability to project cutting-edge military power in support of NATO and international maritime security.”[xviii] While there is scepticism regarding UK’s capabilities given it is not a Pacific Rim power and has limited assets in the Indian Ocean[xix], it does provide opportunities for India and UK to recalibrate their defence ties. India is already an influential player in the region and UK is keen on expanding its footprint, there is a natural synergy in increasing engagement on defence and security. For India, the UK can be an important partner in maritime security and for the promotion of multilateral maritime security dialogues at various regional platforms. Also, through increased joint exercises and signing of MoU on defence logistics and training, they can broaden the scope of their military relations.
The Integrated Review and the Roadmap 2030 provide a blueprint for both the countries to tap into each other’s strength in areas such as research and innovation, defence and technology, higher education etc. The fact remains that, although New Delhi and London wants to upgrade their partnership, it would require significant efforts by both partners across the spectrum of policy areas to make their partnership truly strategic. It is vital for both to sustain the momentum achieved during the Virtual Summit to push forward the pragmatic agenda that has been set for the next ten years.
*Dr. Ankita Dutta, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]The Hindu, 2 May 2021 https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/un-designates-jem-chief-masood-azhar-as-global-terrorist/article27002685.ece, Accessed on 28 May 2021
[ii] The Guardian, 18 December 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/18/uk-and-china-how-the-love-affair-faded, Accessed on 28 May 2021
[iii] Hindustan Times, 11 September 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/reversing-may-era-uk-brings-back-2-year-post-study-visa/story-xcps3ynAc2EJqOZQSVdpPJ.html, Accessed on 29 May 2021
[iv]India’s Top 25 Trading Partners, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India, https://tradestat.commerce.gov.in/eidb/iecnttopn.asp, Accessed on 29 May 2021
[vi] Fact Sheet on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) From April, 2000 To March, 2021, DIPP, https://dipp.gov.in/sites/default/files/FDI_Factsheet_March%2C21.pdf, Accessed on 29 May 2021
[vii] “Global Britain in a competitive age - The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, Her Majesty’s Government, March 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/global-britain-in-a-competitive-age-the-integrated-review-of-security-defence-development-and-foreign-policy, Accessed on 1 June 2021
[xii] “Roadmap 2030 for India-UK future relations launched during India-UK Virtual Summit”, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 4 May, 2021, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/33838/Roadmap_2030_for_IndiaUK_future_relations_launched_during_IndiaUK_Virtual_Summit_4_May_2021#:~:text=Partnerships%20Development%20Partnerships-,Roadmap%202030%20for%20India%2DUK%20future%20relations%20launched%20during%20India,Summit%20(4%20May%2C%202021)&text=India%20and%20the%20UK%20are,that%20delivers%20for%20both%20countries.&text=Through%20this%20ambitious%20Roadmap%2C%20we,Comprehensive%20Strategic%20Partnership%20(CSP), Accessed on 2 June 2021
[xiii] Hindustan Times, 4 May 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/uk-pm-announces-new-1-bn-trade-deal-with-india-101620076645078.html, Accessed on 2 June 2021
[xiv] Integrated Review, n.7
[xv] “Building Bridges: Reawakening UK-India ties”, Eighteenth Report of Session 2017–19, House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 2019, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmfaff/1465/1465.pdf, Accessed on 3 June 2021
[xvi] Integrated Review, n.7
[xvii]“UK kick starts preparation for trade negotiations with India”, Government of UK, 25 May 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-kick-starts-preparation-for-trade-negotiations-with-india, Accessed on 3 June 2021
[xviii] Integrated Review, n.7
[xix] The Guardian, 15 March 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/mar/15/why-britain-is-tilting-to-the-indo-pacific-region, Accessed on 3 June 2021