Why Boris is on a passage to India

Why Boris is on a passage to India

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Much attention was lavished on the “quad” meeting last week of the US, Australia, Japan and, perhaps most notably, India.  But the increasing integration of New Delhi into Western partnerships, one of the most significant geopolitical developments of recent times, is by no means limited to Asia-Pacific and the Americas.

There has also been a significant recent shift toward India by key European nations, including the UK, as tensions have grown with China, particularly since the COVID-19 outbreak. Both Brussels (on behalf of the EU) and London have held summits with New Delhi this year in which there has been a new warmth in ties.    

There are several longstanding drivers of this.  The EU (taken as a whole) and India are the world’s two largest democracies, and continental Europe is India’s largest single trade and investment partner, so a trade deal would be a key prize for both parties.  

However, July’s latest bilateral summit showed that there are wider reasons behind converging interests.  Theyinclude a growing need to develop shared forums for defense, including maritime security in the Indian Ocean,where 40 percent of bilateral trade passes.  

Fruitful as the EU-India dialogue could now prove, however, it is perhaps the UK of all European countries that is looking to enhance ties at the fastest clip.  London and New Delhi have a unique relationship that dates back to at least the British Empire, and both UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attach high importance to it — not least because of the  million and a half Indian diaspora population in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  

In 2018, Modi became the first Indian leader to visit Britain for over a decade,  a trip reciprocated by an equallyrare prime ministerial visit to India by Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor. 

For the foreseeable future, irritants in UK-Indian relations look likely to continue to be overridden by the growing appetite for greater economic collaboration, as London offsets cooling relations with Beijing...

Andrew Hammond

Britain has at least two reasons to want the relationship with India to be as warm as possible. The first is the cooling of ties between China and the UK, which has been more significant than with many other European countries — in part because of the UK’s historical ties with Hong Kong. The second reason is Brexit, with Johnson wanting UK companies to gain stronger access to the Indian market of about 1.3 billion consumers through a new UK-India trade deal. The strength of the economic relationship is underlined by the fact that the UK is one of the biggest G20 employers and investors in India, which is also one of largest sources of foreign investment in the UK.

There are several elements to the economic relationship that Johnson wants to emphasize in a post-Brexit trade deal. The first is stronger cooperation in defense manufacturing as part of a wider security and defence dialogue. The second is encouraging further international investment, via the City of London, to finance Indian infrastructure.  This will build on announcements made during Modi’s UK trip over the sale on the London Stock Exchange of rupee-denominated offshore “masala bonds” to finance investment in infrastructure, including housing and railways. 

The third is technology, given the significant investment in Indian telecoms and technology investments by UK-headquartered companies. This is also a priority for Modi, and during his UK visit he helped set up the India-UK Tech Partnership comprising young CEOs from the two countries. 

Despite differences between India and the UK on the details of a new post-Brexit trade deal, what is striking is how much economics has come to dominate the relationship.  In so doing, some traditional irritants have been sidelined, including human rights. For instance, there was a debate in the House of Commons in 2018 in which MPs asked the government to raise with Modi (who leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party) the treatment of Sikh and Christian minority groups.  In 2013, there was even a Commons motion calling on the Home Office, which is responsible for immigration policy, to reintroduce the UK travel ban on Modi because of“his role in the communal violence in 2002” in Gujarat when he was the state’s chief minister. The ban had been rescinded in 2012 before Modi became prime minister two years later.  

As Johnson continues to prioritize ties with India, these controversies have been largely swept under the carpet.  For the foreseeable future, irritants in UK-Indian relations look likely to continue to be overridden by the growing appetite for greater economic collaboration, as London offsets cooling relations with Beijing with warmer ties with New Delhi. 

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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