Originally Published 2022-04-29 10:00:26 Published on Apr 29, 2022 Commentaries 20 Days ago
The British government's Integrated Review brought out in 2021 places a high priority on its partnership with India
Boris Johnson’s visit launches a <em>khas dosti</em>
Coming on the back of two postponements, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s India visit last week more than made up for the apparent loss in time with a serious and focused agenda. The visit was high on symbolism as well as deliverables. Mr Johnson aptly described the high stakes of the visit by saying, “….I don't think things have ever been as strong or as good between us (India-UK) as they are now.” Indeed, the visit touched on quite a few “firsts” and created grounds for further elevation of India-UK partnership across trade, defence and political relations. Mr Johnson became the first British prime minister to visit Gujarat covering an interesting mix of agendas: From a visit to Gandhi’s Ashram in Sabarmati, to a trip to Gujrat Biotechnology university — first such university in the state — to the famous Akshardham temple, to a JCB manufacturing plant near Vadodra and a closed-door meeting with leading businessmen from the state, including a one-to-one with industrialist Gautam Adani. Each of these seems carefully chosen to advance India-UK partnership in different areas. The agenda drawn during the visit by Mr Johnson could significantly boost the India-UK Comprehensive Roadmap 2030, a vision finalised between the two countries in 2021. Mr Johnson’s trade itinerary in Gujarat was focused on both short- and long-term goals covering health, climate, defence, clean energy and people-to-people ties. Collaboration in manufacturing construction equipment and issues of market access to dairy products, a sticking point of the ongoing free trade negotiations between the two countries, were particularly stressed upon during his visit. As such, Mr Johnson’s meeting with representatives of the dairy industry signals a willingness to resolve the issues of market access and import duties related to British and European Union dairy products in Indian markets.
Collaboration in manufacturing construction equipment and issues of market access to dairy products, a sticking point of the ongoing free trade negotiations between the two countries, were particularly stressed upon during his visit.
Mr Johnson’s visit also subtly tried to address the legacy issues between the two countries. By positioning his visit to the Sabarmati Ashram before his political agenda and trying his hand at the charkha — symbolisms that remain at the core of India’s anti-colonial struggle by Mahatma Gandhi — he tried to deal with the lingering issue of the legacy of colonialism which often acts as an impediment in India’s ties with its erstwhile coloniser. The visit to an upcoming university — which is being established in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh — could very well be a microcosm of the growing India-UK partnership in the area of education. Mr Johnson’s visit to the Akshardham temple straddled respect for religious sentiments with a stern message against terrorism. This year marks 20 years of the terrorist attack in September 2002 on the temple in which 33 people were killed and more than 80 injured. Joint message by both sides against terrorism and extremism have seem to have struck a chord.  There have been strong concerns in India about the presence of extremist elements in the UK who support anti-India activities. Added to this is India’s concerns on extradition of some of the economic offenders who have fled to the UK. Mr Johnson’s visit proved useful with regards to the two countries establishing an anti-extremist task force which will be working through a subgroup of the joint working group (JWG) on counter-terrorism and sharing of information and intelligence on terror entities and individuals. Perhaps, one of the strongest developments coming out of Mr Johnson’s visit was the boost to bilateral defence relationship. In particular, the creation of an Open General Export Licence (OGEL) for India to “reduce bureaucracy and slashing delivery times” for defence procurement could significantly reduce red tape and smoothen defence trade. This is the first OGEL for Britain in the Indo-Pacific region, where it is seeking a larger footprint.
Mr Johnson’s visit proved useful with regards to the two countries establishing an anti-extremist task force which will be working through a subgroup of the joint working group (JWG) on counter-terrorism and sharing of information and intelligence on terror entities and individuals.
Mr Johnson’s visit to India also provided a good staging for the free trade agreement (FTA) lined up for later this month. The announcement of a Diwali deadline to finalise the FTA may be challenging but exceptionally beneficial to the bilateral relationship if it comes through. India’s recent FTAs with the UAE and Australia could provide strong cues in this regard. The potential of India-UK ties in the Indo-Pacific region could best be defined as “a beacon in stormy seas” — an expression used by  Mr Johnson to describe UK-India partnership broadly. Commitments made by both sides show that maintaining a free, open, inclusive and rules-based order remains central to their goals in the Indo-Pacific region. Their joint stand against any form of coercion in the Indo-Pacific predictably points to the biggest regional outlier — China. The UK’s decision to join the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative indicates its strong intent to partner with India in managing and securing this vast region and is a welcome move for the emergence of another strong axis of stability for India in the region. The British government’s Integrated Review brought out in 2021 places a high priority on its partnership with India. Two successive important visits, by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in March followed by Mr Johnson this month, have underscored the importance of India-UK ties in a rapidly changing global order. A common strand emerging from both these visits is the UK’s ability to factor India’s constraints apropos its position on Russia, despite disparate views. It signals a new found maturity in this bilateral relationship and both sides’ ability to effectively navigate the vagaries of geopolitics.
This commentary originally appeared in Business Standard.
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Authors

Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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Vivek Mishra

Vivek Mishra

Vivek Mishra is a Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. His research interests include America in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific regions, particularly ...

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