Never before have the corridors of power in New Delhi seen such a long list of foreign visitors in such a short time queuing up to do business with India. The country’s handling of the Covid pandemic, economic recovery process, and the strong and independent stand on geopolitical events in the region and elsewhere could be some of the reasons for this sudden attraction. United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself had to cancel two earlier dates due to the pandemic. Having arrived in India on 21 April, he will surely find the former ‘East India Company’ colony a new place.
Although threats from ‘autocratic states’ and India’s stand on the Russia-Ukraine crisis appeared to be uppermost on Boris Johnson’s agenda initially, it is now clear that trade and Indo-Pacific cooperation are top priorities for the PM. His office had earlier suggested that the visit assumes importance, as the two countries will deepen relationships on issues pertaining to ‘strategic defence, diplomatic, and economic partnership’.
Deep down in the British psyche, there was always a nagging idea that it wasn’t ‘Great’ as long as it was tied to the European Union (EU) despite not dissolving its pound sterling into the euro cauldron. The mood in the country to urgently quit the EU was sensed by Johnson when he was the Foreign Minister and quit Theresa May’s cabinet on the Brexit issue and went on to become Prime Minister. The need to chart a new and independent path after quitting the EU, especially on security, trade and diplomacy, was articulated in the 2021 policy paper by the UK government.
Seventy-five years is a long time for the UK to consider going global after the ‘liquidation of Her Majesty’s governments’ across Africa, Asia, and the Far East. This should explain the resolve to set 2030 as the target to deeply engage ‘in the Indo-Pacific as the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence in support of mutually-beneficial trade, shared security, and values’. The Indo-Pacific has transformed from the Asia Pacific into a vibrant region with many more stakeholders than the number it boasted about under British colonialism. The India-centric emerging contours of the Indo-Pacific appear to be a natural destination for the UK if it wants to join the Going Global bandwagon and do what it did centuries ago for existence and trade. Most of the colonial geography of Britain, and the rest of the European powers as well, have now come under the economic influence of the ‘autocratic State’, a fitting euphemism for China.
It remains to be seen if the democratic coalition’s new approach towards a free and open Indo-Pacific gets enriched by Britain’s changed attitude towards the region. The Quad has been trying to stand up to the challenges in the maritime and continental domain, especially posed by an assertive and, at times aggressive, ‘not-so-peaceful’ rise of China. India has been at the receiving end of this threat both on its northern and western borders, thanks to the ‘partition plan’ of Boris Johnson’s predecessors.
Will the changed global approach of the UK include measures to correct its historical wrongs? “It is the long-standing position of the UK government that the crisis in Kashmir is fundamentally a matter for India and Pakistan to resolve. And it is not – alas, since we were there at the very beginning – it is not for us as the UK to prescribe a solution in that dispute,” Boris Johnson had said while replying to the debate on the abrogation of Article 370 in the British Parliament in 2019.
The deeper security and trade initiatives can include the acceptance of the fact that Britain was at the root of the problem. This may give it a clearer vision to deal with the future course of actions that New Delhi may initiate.
But, as of now, the British Prime Minister has to attend to rebalancing ties with India and the EU. While the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between India and the UAE will come into effect in May this year, New Delhi will restart negotiations with the 27-member EU panel on the long-pending comprehensive free trade agreement called broad-based Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA), which has been stalled since 2013. It is likely to boost the present level of merchandise exports, which stand at nearly 57 billion US dollars.
Boris Johnson’s country has to match these trade figures in the coming years, as it is going to be the UK that will compete with the 27 members of the EU, of which it is longer a member. In a way, New Delhi stands to gain both ways with a free trade agreement with two major economic power blocks.
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Trouble at home
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s visit also coincides with domestic issues in the UK like the police fine against him for hosting an unauthorised birthday party in June 2020, where the number of guests exceeded Covid protocols and social distancing was not maintained. The UK Opposition has also raised its objection to the government’s decision to relocate refugees to Rwanda, which has a dubious human rights record. The UK-Rwanda agreement, announced by British Home Minister Priti Patel, has already drawn flak from the conservative Opposition and some international agencies. But Britain’s biggest problem is accommodating, housing, feeding, and employing these refugees at a time when its own economy is unable to support such large-heartedness.
The last time Johnson faced criticism, then as the Foreign Secretary, was for the Rohingya refugee issue when he did not punish Myanmar sufficiently. But then, many of the refugee problems in South Asia and elsewhere could be traced to the British colonial past. For the UK, ‘going global’ will be a challenge in the changed circumstances, and India will truly be a useful and equal partner.
Seshadri Chari is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)