Why India-UK relations are set for robust growth - Hindustan Times

Why India-UK relations are set for robust growth

By, Anit Mukherjee
May 26, 2024 12:25 AM IST

The onus is on the respective governments to realise the promise, which will require some heavy lifting, newfound initiatives, and realistic expectations

After decades of underwhelming relations, ties between India and the United Kingdom (UK) are poised to enter a new phase. For 20 years, successive British governments have unsuccessfully pursued a closer relationship with India. Britain’s close partnership with Pakistan during the Afghan War, former first secretary of state George Osborne’s proclamation of a “golden era” of Sino-British relations, and the protracted Brexit process, made New Delhi sceptical. Only in the aftermath of the 2020 border clashes with China did India see the UK and other European countries as potential partners. Significant credit must go to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his successors who sought to change India’s perception of Britain: Working to reduce economic exposure to China, naming and shaming Pakistan for financing of terrorism, announcing a significant “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific, and relaxing visa restrictions on Indian students and workers. Such initiatives were welcomed by New Delhi, generating a once-in-a-generation buzz about the future of the bilateral partnership.

A significant British Indian immigrant community is often seen as an asset binding the two sides together(HT file) PREMIUM
A significant British Indian immigrant community is often seen as an asset binding the two sides together(HT file)

In 2021, the two countries embarked on the 2030 Roadmap for India-UK Future Relations, which envisages deepening cooperation across a range of governmental activities, including trade, people-to-people ties, defence, climate and health in a manner that could finally allow the bilateral relationship to deliver on its promise. Implementation, however, will be key.

The most vocal opinion one hears from New Delhi is that — alone among western powers — the UK still calibrates its relations with India to its ties with Pakistan. Whether this is a result of the perceived political influence of British Pakistanis or the UK national security establishment’s efforts to maintain close ties with the Pakistani military, Indian observers are quick to note that a trust deficit characterises the bilateral relationship.

A significant British Indian immigrant community is often seen as an asset binding the two sides together. At the same time, Sikh separatists advocating for a separate homeland have cast a long shadow on UK-India relations. The still-shattered windows of the Indian High Commission in London are a constant reminder of the violence that minority elements of the diasporic community can inflict on this relationship.

The probable emergence of a Labour government in the UK after the July 4 general election will be awkward given the past efforts of the Overseas Friends of the BJP to stump for the Conservatives. Although Labour has signalled that it, too, values closer ties with India, more questions will be asked about human rights, democratic backsliding, and Kashmir. In the face of these challenges, strong people-to-people links, and stable commercial ties will probably ensure a relatively steady relationship. Nonetheless, there are steps that both countries can take.

First, bolstering Britain’s presence across the Indo-Pacific is a step in the right direction. Since the much-heralded Integrated Review in 2021, Britain has intensified its engagements across the region — ramping up its diplomatic and military cooperation. Accordingly, it has embarked on the AUKUS partnership, became a dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan in 2023. The challenge lies in maintaining this level of focused attention.

Second, defence engagement has been one of the strongest pillars of India’s interactions with its closest partners — from Russia and Israel to France and the United States (US). Britain should learn from and emulate the US experience. The defence-military partnership between India and the US did not happen overnight. With its large State-owned defence sector, India has traditionally found it easier to work with France and Russia — where governments have much greater influence over defence companies — than with private American firms which zealously guard their commercial interests. The first attempt to bridge that gap, the government-led US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) failed to push forward the co-development of specific technologies identified by joint working groups because of the significant economic and technological gap between the US and India. Newer initiatives such as the India-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X) facilitate organic partnerships between private Indian and US defence companies, as well as incubators, accelerators, universities, and funders, with a larger focus on defence innovation and co-production. Since defence-industrial cooperation has been a challenge for India and the UK as well, they should explore a similar model.

Third, the UK may not enjoy the luxury of walking away from Pakistan. Nevertheless, if British officials truly believe their relationship with Islamabad is not comparable with the partnership with Delhi, that must be continually demonstrated via action, not just words. Ultimately, India will judge Britain on its behaviour in the next India-Pakistan crisis.

Finally, New Delhi must value the potential for cooperation between the two countries. Gloomy assessments about Britain’s defence posture have led India to significantly reduce its defence attaché posts in London. Although part of an overall rebalancing of India’s defence relations, the UK was seen as a country where it could dramatically shrink its defence diplomatic footprint. Such an assessment ignores Britain’s capabilities in jet engines, undersea systems and emerging technologies like quantum computing and cyber which are highly valued by the Indian military. Both countries, therefore, need to think more creatively about leveraging each other’s comparative advantages for mutual benefit.

With new governments in place, 2025 presents a unique opportunity to elevate UK-India ties. The groundwork has been laid, but realising the promise of partnership will require some heavy lifting, newfound initiatives, and realistic expectations on both sides.

Walter Ladwig and Anit Mukherjee are senior lecturers at King’s College London. The piece is based on their contribution to a policy report on UK-India relations, published by UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE). The views expressed are personal

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