Narendra Modi is greeted by Priti Patel after arriving at Heathrow airport. Courtesy of Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Wikimedia
As the UK charts a new foreign policy following its exit from the EU, strengthening relations with India is likely to be a key objective.
The UK’s interest in India has been growing for some time. The 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) identified India as an important economic, defence and security partner – a significant change from the 2010 SDSR, in which India only received a cursory mention. Despite these changes, the UK has yet to clarify the scope and strategic aims of its relationship with India, often touted as a key partner for a ‘Global Britain’.
In Delhi there is also scepticism about the potential depth of the UK–India relationship, owing to lingering colonial baggage, in the form of longstanding concerns about the UK’s stance on Jammu and Kashmir and terrorist activities by groups based in Pakistan, as well as apprehensions about perceived ‘anti-India’ activities in the UK. These can create additional pitfalls and sensitivities around bilateral engagement that do not encumber the UK’s competitors. From the UK’s perspective, Delhi’s stance on the Chagos Islands dispute has been problematic, as India has regularly advocated the transfer of the territory over which the UK currently maintains sovereignty to Mauritius and supported a May 2019 UN resolution that termed the UK’s presence there a ‘colonial administration’.
British Party Politics Matter
With the UK and India benefitting from stable governments enjoying strong political mandates following elections in 2019, there could, however, be an opportunity to significantly advance the bilateral relationship. The upcoming UK Integrated Security Review should, thus, be viewed as a means by which to reframe the UK’s approach to its ties with India.
A key political factor in achieving progress is likely to be the sweeping victory of the Conservative Party in the December 2019 elections. Following the passage of a resolution on Jammu and Kashmir at the 2019 Labour Party conference that was widely criticised in India, there was a mobilisation of segments of the Indian diaspora and British Hindu population in favour of the Conservative Party ahead of the December General Election (note that the new Labour Party leader Keir Starmer recently repositioned his party’s stance on the issue). Added to that, some of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s campaign rhetoric and the fact that his cabinet includes a number of ministers of Indian origin have led to greater interest and goodwill in India towards the UK government. Moreover, the recent step of reintroducing a two-year post-study work visa in the UK could go some way towards addressing the thorny issue of visa liberalisation, which has been a persistent roadblock in bilateral ties and will be an integral component of any future agreement with India.
India will be a target for a post-Brexit trade agreement, but the UK must clearly define its priorities in this regard. The UK–India bilateral trade relationship grew significantly in 2018, but it remains weaker than it was at its peak in 2013 and comprised only 1.6% of the UK’s total trade. Moreover, India’s reluctance to enter into such agreements must be accounted for when conceptualising a future UK–India relationship.
The investment relationship between the two countries is, however, more robust, with each continuing to be among the largest investors in the other’s economy. Ensuring that there is limited disruption to Indian companies investing in the UK following Brexit and pushing to improve access and create markets for UK companies in India may be more viable ways of boosting economic ties. The UK’s Prosperity Fund, within which India is a priority country, could be one step towards achieving this. The UK should also engage on other areas such as regulation on data protection and financial inclusion mechanisms, which have not only been priorities for the Indian government but will be doubly important in light of the economic and surveillance measures likely to be adopted following the coronavirus crisis.
In terms of defence relations, the UK and India have conducted regular high-level visits, military exercises and staff college exchanges. In addition, there is a steady dialogue at a technical level in the form of the Defence Consultative Group (DCG) which features the most senior civil servants of each country’s defence ministry and includes sub-groups covering the different branches of the military, science and technology, and defence equipment. The DCG intends to add two further sub-groups, focusing on the joint environment (which includes cyber and space) and defence reform cooperation.
Engagement at the senior ministerial level, however, has been more limited. The last meeting between the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence and India’s Defence Minister took place in April 2017, in what was presented as ‘the first annual UK–India strategic dialogue’. As a result, an otherwise positive defence relationship may be saddled with the perception of insufficient political buy-in owing to the lack of high-level engagement.
Similarly, one of the reasons for the relatively limited UK–India defence equipment ties is the preference in Delhi for government-to-government (G2G) agreements. The UK does not seem to have engaged with such processes thus far, while others such as France and Russia have embraced the model and circumvented the traditional Indian defence procurement route, which has been riddled with delays and uncertainty. The UK has, however, recently noted the utility of the G2G framework for defence deals with India.
Capitalising on opportunities emerging from evolving technological requirements, the UK should implement and sustain this shift in its engagement with India and focus on completing deals that would enable joint research and production in specific areas of strength, such as the Royal Navy’s integrated electric propulsion system, which the Indian Navy is interested in for its future warships, and jet engine technology.
Indian Ocean Cooperation
In the Indian Ocean region, both the UK and India share an interest in promoting the rules-based international order, improving maritime domain awareness, countering non-traditional security threats, securing sea lines of communication, and providing sustainable infrastructure and development options. If the UK is to step up successfully its engagement on Indo-Pacific security, building closer cooperation with India on regional issues will be essential.
A notable gap in UK–India bilateral engagements is, however, a sustained maritime dialogue, which has not taken place despite being mentioned in the 2015 Joint Statement during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UK. Launching a maritime dialogue would be a useful step towards developing mechanisms to address shared security and geopolitical risks as well as ironing out differences that currently prevent a closer relationship between the two.
The UK and India participate in an annual naval exercise, though the scope of this has reduced in recent years. The planned deployment of the UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier strike group to the Indo-Pacific in 2021 provides an opportunity to expand the exercise and to boost bilateral maritime engagement.
As the UK’s resources will be stretched across the globe, the UK should also look to engage with India in the Indian Ocean within ‘minilaterals’ with other like-minded partners, such as Japan, France and Australia, which would allow the pooling of resources and expertise. While the US would usually be involved in such arrangements, it might be helpful to secure arrangements among middle powers as they avoid the baggage of the intensifying great power competition between the US and China and help fill a governance and security vacuum in the Indian Ocean.
In building a maritime partnership with India, the Commonwealth can serve as a multilateral forum through which the UK and India can drive the implementation of mutual economic and non-traditional security objectives in the Indian Ocean, where a number of littoral member states share these concerns. Documents like the Commonwealth Blue Charter, Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda and Commonwealth Cyber Declaration provide a framework for the UK to both share its technical expertise in tackling areas of mutual concern and work with India as it seeks to play a larger role in multilateral organisations.
While the UK–India relationship may have stagnated in recent years, political shifts in the UK along with geopolitical circumstances mean that if the UK is able to engage with India as noted above, it might be able to leverage its technical expertise and soft power to deepen its relationship with India and promote mutual prosperity and security. Not only will this enable the UK to enhance its economic opportunities as it completes its exit from the EU, but also by partnering with a like-minded stakeholder in the Indian Ocean region, it will allow the UK to position itself as an important actor in a dynamic geopolitical and security environment as it seeks to preserve the increasingly strained rules-based international order.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Former Research Analyst, South Asia