Why Boris visit marks turning point in UK-India strategic ties

Why Boris visit marks turning point in UK-India strategic ties

Britain and India are embarking on a bold new strategic partnership, with defence and security at its heart as confirmed in both the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s joint statement with Indian PM Narendra Modi, and a broader UK-India Joint Statement. Boris Johnson’s long-awaited visit to India last week may have been transformational for the UK-India relationship after all.

Defence and Security partnership

Boris Johnson confirmed in his joint statement with PM Modi that Britain intends to pursue an expanded defence and security partnership with India. Against that backdrop, Britain has offered to help India build futuristic fighter jets, a significant offer coming at a pivotal moment in post-Brexit Britain’s defence industry.

In the past, British defence industry has been plugged into the European aviation industry, contributing to multi-national billion-dollar aircraft programmes such as the Eurofighter Typhoon. Now with the UK having left the EU, Britain is seeking out new partners. India, which has a large and sophisticated aircraft industry of its own, is an almost perfect fit. This would be a win-win for both Delhi and London, as Britain can provide critical design assistance with technology that India still struggles with, such as jet engines. These are industrial fields worth billions of dollars, so any sharing of know-how is meaningful.

India can currently build advanced so-called ‘fourth generation’ planes such as the indigenous Tejas, which are agile and powerful, but lack certain cutting-edge features such as anti-radar stealth which are considered essential for even more sophisticated ‘fifth generation’ fighters. Britain has offered to make India a partner in its stealth fighter plane project, the BAe Systems’ Tempest. This would be a significant enabler for India to acquire design and testing know-how for its own stealth fighter programme, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.

Nothing is set in stone yet, but the prospect of access to cutting-edge British labs will be tempting for Delhi, so it would be unsurprising if India opted to partner with Britain on certain technologies related to futuristic jet fighters going forward. Additionally, the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory has set up a Joint Working Group with India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation to co-develop advanced electric propulsion for ships, potentially enhancing Indian naval capabilities.

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Russia-Ukraine conflict

The UK and India may not be fully aligned on the reaction to the conflict, but Boris Johnson acknowledged India’s “historic relationship with Russia” which “everybody understands and respects that goes back decades”.

“What the Indians want is peace and they want the Russians out. And I totally agree with that,” he told reporters when asked about it in Delhi.

Certainly, the Indian government has issued multiple public statements for a return to the negotiating table by Russia and Ukraine. However, it has refrained from publicly condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin, deeply mindful of the Indian military’s historic connect with Russian-origin hardware. By offering India critical defence technology, London hopes to begin to wean Delhi off Moscow, slowly but surely.

India faces an ongoing problem of brain drain, with millions of talented Indians leaving the country to study and work abroad. The levels of funding for Indian defence research and development are still not high compared to the West, Russia and China. Infrastructure has only just begun to catch up to what is considered cutting edge in the West.

All this means that the UK, with its world-class research infrastructure and universities, is a natural fit as a defence partner with India. It is against this backdrop that PM Johnson has committed to helping India get to grips with the task of achieving self-reliance in defence, and manufacturing as outlined in Section 13 of the UK-India Joint Statement.

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Open, free, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific

Section 34 of the UK-India Joint Statement mentions a free and open Indo-Pacific region, which is now menaced by China. Of course, the other subtext to Johnson’s visit is China. Beijing has long been a source of concern for human rights watchers and security experts across the globe.

The hoped-for liberalisation of Chinese politics as China grows more prosperous, has not emerged. Quite the opposite – the level of repression in China is only growing and with Beijing’s increasing military power building, some form of conflict over Taiwan or the South China Seas is a real possibility. The two-year-long nightmare of coronavirus, in which the Chinese government’s role is hotly debated, only increased the general sense of apprehension around Beijing.

The British tilt to the Indo-Pacific region is real, and Britain fully intends to commit to the Asian region as a critical security force. The Royal Navy can partner the Indian Navy, the prime security actor in the vast and strategically critical Indian Ocean region.

Britain sent the Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group 21 to India to exercise with India’s military in July 2021, following the posting of a Royal Navy Liaison Officer to India’s naval Information Fusion Centre in Gurugram which monitors Indian Ocean shipping, demonstrating the increased Anglo-Indian cooperation in protecting Indo-Pacific trade from China, if necessary.

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Free trade agreement

The two leaders, as expected, welcomed the launch of free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations in January 2022 in New Delhi.

Their joint statement reads: “They noted with satisfaction that good progress had been made already, and that the agreement of an FTA would unlock the full potential of the trade and commercial relationship, boosting jobs, investment and exports.

“They set a target to conclude the majority of talks on a comprehensive and balanced free trade agreement by the end of October 2022.”

Addressing the media, Johnson expressed his enthusiasm at the notion that such a deal would be ready by Diwali, which falls on October 24 this year – an even more ambitious prospect than the previous reference to an end of the year timeline.

Zero tolerance for terrorism

In Section 17 of the joint statement Britain and India expressed zero tolerance for terrorism, with a focus on countering terrorist financing and sanctuaries. In the past, Delhi may have felt that Britain could do more to curb Pakistan, in a curious reversion of the current controversy over Russia. That is one concern that India need worry less about now.

Over the past decade, there has been verbal condemnation of Pakistani support for terrorism from former PM David Cameron, a move by London to have Pakistan grey listed by the powerful Financial Action Task Force (a UN mandated counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism financial watchdog) and relative diplomatic silence from Downing Street when India bombed Balakot in Pakistan, in response to the Pulwama terrorist attack in 2019.

Now Britain is formalising counterterrorism cooperation with India, setting up a joint task force focusing on Khalistani terror operating out of the UK and enhancing cooperation in a joint counterterrorism working group which meets regularly. Based on this declaration by Boris Johnson during his interactions with the press in Delhi, Britain and India appear to be on the same page on countering radicalism and extremism.

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Visit success

For the past decade, British Prime Ministers have been visiting India in the hope of garnering more lucrative trade deals. They have been somewhat successful, but it may have been Johnson, that has begun to unlock the full potential of the bilateral relationship.

A relationship with defence and security at the core, building on already robust people to people ties between India and the UK. All of this still has a question mark hanging over it of course. India still hasn’t committed to the multibillion dollar projects that could really take the partnership to the next level. However, with challenging geopolitics in the shape of a Sino-Russian axis, growing pains in aerospace technology and a population eager for manufacturing jobs there is more scope than ever for London and Delhi to collaborate in areas of mutual interest.

Jeevan Vipinachandran is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.

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