London: Boris Johnson is going to India. Expectations from the British Prime Minister’s first overseas trip since Brexit and Covid-19 lockdowns are numerous. The main speculation is about an enhanced trade deal. This piece will leave that to the experts and focus on other areas of significance.
UK-India relations can be super-charged by speeches of support and respect. Support comes in various guises—from goodwill wishes for Diwali or Vaisakhi to holding Pakistan to account for exporting terrorism, as David Cameron did in 2010. Equally, they can crash downwards with silly incidents such as the recent Alabama “Namaste” ban in the US, which suggests an element of anti-India bias. Respect permeates everything and is an imperative in a 21st century relationship with India, especially in the geopolitical sphere if UK expects a transactional relationship. This is evidenced in how negatively India responds to predominantly Labour Party debates in Parliament about India’s domestic matters, interference in India’s relationship with Pakistan and in the bias towards Rashmi Samant at Oxford University.
Looking at recent UK think tank reports and government announcements, “competitive” is the word of the moment. “UK must be competitive” stands out repeatedly. The subtleties within “competitive” are often overlooked. It can be interpreted as keeping up with or competitor depending on the context.
Already European countries have become closer to India—France in the military and space sectors. Last week France advised all its citizens to leave Pakistan temporarily due to Tehreek-i-Labbaik’s leader Saad Hussain Rizvi agitations to expel the French Ambassador under the pretext of President Macron’s Islamophobia. Italy’s bilaterals are improving in agriculture, the food economy and defence; the Netherlands on water management; and both Germany and UK have MoUs for technological cooperation in the railway sector. Since 2014, India-Israeli relations have been perfected. Israel has grasped India’s need to be treated with respect and as a strategic partner. The closeness and mutual respect have paid off for both nations across many sectors. This highlights the importance of “competitive” bilaterals for UK post exiting the EU. A good start would be giving more prominence, credit and respect to the AZ vaccine being produced at the Serum Institute of India.
One cannot forget past synergies with India, including British and Indian militaries fighting side by side in both World Wars to protect global freedoms, and there are signs these two navies might be on show again in the Indo-Pacific region. Today UK and India have similar sized defence budgets (approximately £40bn); together they can work to leverage better results, UK-India joint forces have high levels of interoperability. This is evident from the bi-annual exercise programme, where Indian and British forces undertake joint exercises, across all the services.
The prestigious Dogra Regiment of the Indian Army was in UK in 2020, participating in Exercise Ajeya Warrior with the 1st Battalion the Rifles. Brigadier Gavin Thompson, the UK’s Defence Adviser in New Delhi, said: “The armies of the UK and India have a shared history of working together and continue to benefit from a close relationship… The exercise demonstrates our high levels of interoperability, evident from bi-annual joint exercises across all the services where Indian and British forces undertake joint training such as this one (Ajeya Warrior) with the Army, Exercise Konkan with the Navy and the Air Force Exercise Indra Dhanush.”
Exercise Konkan saw HMS Defender and INS Tarkash of the two navies meet in the English Channel in 2019 to conduct anti-submarine demonstrations, combined training manoeuvres and boarding operations. Crews were encouraged to trade places with one-another, while Indian and British personnel were also encouraged to step into each other’s shoes, with a select few spending several hours experiencing life in a different navy.
The 5th Indra Dhanush took place in early 2020 in Uttar Pradesh, a joint exercise between the AIF and RAF. The theme of the exercise was Base Defence and Force Protection, to allow both Air Forces to strategize, share information and learn from each other’s operational experience. Thus the two Air Forces can future plan scenarios and train on tactics to counter terror threats to protect their installations.
Additionally, UK has long-standing successful exchange programmes in Defence Education, delivering senior officers professional development and academic courses in defence and international security. UK supports Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign and it seems the MOD will continue to work together to share the burden of future development and expansion in the future. UK has a world leading technological and industrial military offer and is the second largest defence exporter in the world.
UK and India also share the joint challenges of border protection, coastal protection and countering piracy. UK has the lead on anti-piracy in the western Indian Ocean Region, contributing over £20m to tackle the problem. In one 24-hour period, the Royal Navy’s Maritime Trade Operation helped 76 Indian ships avoid the risk of piracy. UK’s enduring Naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region demonstrates that UK is serious about security and upholding the international rule of law. The UK hopes to establish a maritime partnership with India to support mutual security objectives in the Indian Ocean. This will be underpinned by enhanced collaboration with industry, defence education and a continuation of our joint military exercises to improve interoperability. The three areas where UK feels there is immense opportunity to work together are combat air, complex weapons and maritime technology. The UK’s approach to the IPR will take regional dynamics into account, including that of “partners and allies” investment in the region, strengthening regional defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in order to mitigate growing threats to security, build resilience and capacity, tackle shared security challenges and uphold freedom of navigation and international law.
UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace said recently, “UK’s Strategic Command will partner with the RAF to deliver a step-change in our space capabilities. From next year we will start delivering a UK built Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance satellite constellation. Space is just one area in which the MOD will prioritise more than £6.6-billion of research, development, and experimentation over the next four years.” This led to speculation that UK-India space cooperation is expected shortly.
Remember that UK’s Space Innovation and Growth Strategy’s ambitious plan is to increase the UK share of the global space economy to 10% by 2030. Today there is an uptick of investment and employment in the space industry. Private and national companies are looking to link expertise, but Britain is unique in that it gave up development on its indigenous launch system “Black Rocket” in the late 1960s.
In 2020, the UK-India Business Council and the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to forge closer defence ties, an intention to develop industrial cooperation between defence industries and a framework for a future partnership in the aerospace and defence sector. And on the impact-based flood forecasting for India, HR Wallingford is using earth observation data that will build on UK Met Office-funded research carried out in India to provide a system capable of being linked to any existing or future flood-flow forecasting system, to forecast flood risk in terms of expected loss of life, injuries to people, building collapse, infrastructure disruption or economic damage. This particular phase will look at the 2020 flooding of the Koshi river, in Bihar.
Additionally, the National Crime Agency and UK’s other agencies work closely with their Indian counterparts to combat a wide range of criminal threats including cybercrime, child sexual exploitation, money laundering, economic crime, corruption, drug trafficking, human trafficking and organised immigration crime.
UK’s support and respect for India on the world stage are fundamentally important to the UK-India relationship. A report from the British Council in 2015 entitled “India and UK: A 2050 Vision”, highlighted that “Young people in the UK have worryingly low understanding of India”. Unfortunately, in 2021, this is not just young people. An effort has to be made perhaps through the Anglosphere concept to familiarise British folks with India’s authentic culture and current mindset. The British have to look at the Indian civilisation before the Raj and into the future. Apart from a common language there is shared humour, a love of literature, performing arts, a multi-faith society and friendships.
Thanks to Covid-19 Johnson is unable to travel with the usual business delegation. Folks are hoping for good chemistry and good humour between PM Johnson and PM Modi. Putting defence, space and trade aside, we might expect a joint declaration which touches on climate change, vaccine development- health and pharmaceutical manufacturing, Indian financial fugitives in UK and the fight against international terror. And with any luck, some bespoke concessions in visas for Indian investors who want easy access for their professionals and people. This could be similar to the US HB1 visa, that is 80% taken up by Indians, many of whom work in the Silicon Valley or head up global institutions (Google-Microsoft), transforming Indians into the world’s most successful diaspora.
Johnson has the opportunity to be vocal and open about UK-India strategic partnership. More than speeches, action is expected. PM Johnson is an inveterate delegator. This reporter has frequently alluded to follow-up being the key to the success of missions, and following this visit it will be the follow-up from cabinet ministers and civil servants that will be the key to UK’s future with India.