It will soon be a year since Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson met virtually to sign the United Kingdom-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Much has changed since then. For one, the two PMs, like all of us, are no longer bound by travel and health restrictions. Johnson will be able to sit around the same table as Modi — a brilliant sign of normalcy and an opportunity to further boost the UK-India relationship.
At a personal level, PM Johnson and PM Modi get on very well, something perhaps underplayed in geopolitics. Personal relationships matter. As do government visions and objectives. In the case of the UK and India, both are well-aligned. For example, India’s self-reliance mission supports UK companies investing in India, and the UK’s foreign policy “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific makes India a key partner.
It’s safe to say we can expect many such summits going forward but first, we need to ask what has been achieved in the last 12 months and what can we expect in the future. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and its accompanying 2030 roadmap, are built on five priority themes: healthcare, trade and investment, defence and security, climate action, and the people-to-people connections that bring dynamism to the relationship. There are impressive and important things happening in all five areas.
Partners in healthcare and combatting climate change
The two PMs last met in person at the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow in November 2021. When introducing Modi to the audience, Johnson described him as ‘understanding the potential of renewable energy better than anyone’ and ‘sharing our agenda’. And share an agenda they certainly do. Together, in Glasgow, the Prime Ministers jointly announced three initiatives that will see the two countries partner across projects of renewable energy grids, sustainable finance, and disaster relief. This climate action partnership was evident during the UK foreign secretary Liz Truss’ visit to India last month when she announced GBP 70 million of British International Investment funding to support renewable energy use in India, including that to develop solar power. And we should look out for dialogues and delegations on wind energy and hydrogen fuel in the coming months.
The UK and India have supported each other throughout the pandemic. From the Oxford University, Astra Zeneca and Serum Institute of India collaboration on vaccines, to sharing critical personal protective equipment and oxygen in times of need. As we emerge from the pandemic, there are huge opportunities for mutual wins that will not only support our countries’ own populations but will benefit others too. Together, the UK and India can lead the world in biotechnology and life sciences research and development and manufacturing, and we can expect to see more bilateral partnerships being formed, such as the one in Gandhinagar between the Gujarat Biotechnology University and the University of Edinburgh.
Partners in defence and security, and the ‘living bridge’
Defence cooperation has grown too, most visibly when the UK Carrier Strike Group visited India last November. Co-creation of technology and manufacturing partnerships that can meet not just the needs of India but also be exported to other countries is the right aim. Positive things are emerging. For instance, India and the UK are establishing an Electric Propulsion Capability Partnership that will bring our two navies closer, as the UK-India 2030 roadmap commits to partnership on India’s indigenous combat air programmes.
Additionally, and most importantly, at the heart of the bilateral relationship are the people living in and between our two countries. To take just one example, the number of Indian students coming to the UK has grown sharply in recent years. First-year Indian students in the UK increased by 27 per cent — from 41,815 in 2019-20 to 53,015 in 2020-21. These young people are strengthening the living bridge – studying, and indeed working, in the UK, forging life-long friendships and connections.
Trade and investment
When launching the free trade agreement back in January, cabinet minister Piyush Goyal set an ambitious goal of a comprehensive deal by 2023. Negotiations are at an early stage, with two rounds having taken place between January and March, and the third to begin at the end of April.
The deadline set may seem ambitious, but there are four important ingredients – 4Ps – that can turn this ambition into reality.
The first two Ps are pace and positivity. Both have been evident since negotiations were launched, and there is no sign of any let-up. The third P is pragmatism. I understand that negotiators and ministers will be pragmatic. They’ll focus on what can be done, not on what can’t. The fourth, and I think most important, P is political will. Ministers on both sides seem determined to make this happen. They see the economic benefits – more investments, more jobs, and more prosperity. And they recognise that a trade deal strengthens the overall bilateral relationship.
There is often, with some justification, scepticism about announcements made by governments, including when it comes to bilateral relationships. But what is striking about the UK-India partnership is the solidity of the announcements. They are solid partly because they are built on strong day-to-day working relationships between officials, ministers, businesses, universities, and individuals; and partly because the UK-India partnership is enshrined in an action-orientated, mutually agreed 2030 roadmap.
The time that PM Johnson and PM Modi, two long-standing friends, spend together this week will be important in delivering the roadmap, particularly the FTA that will bring many benefits to businesses and consumers in both countries.
Kevin McCole is the Managing Director, UK India Business Council. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)