What is the regional setting, post-Brexit?

Britain unveiled The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy on March 16. Its global role will be determined by the US- China strategic competition, the economic impact of the pandemic, and the long- term effect of Brexit. We can’t be sure what effect the review will have on ties with India. But there are pointers.

What does the review say?

This review names the US as Britain’s “most important strategic ally” and Russia (not China) as its most “acute threat.”There is no mention of Quad or a Quad+1 engagement involving the UK. Yet, it concedes China’s “risk to UK interests,” and a “state- based threat” from China, requiring “China-facing capabilities.” In effect, the UK’s approach to China, like India’s, is to compete and counteract where necessary, and cooperate where possible.

Johnson said in January: “As a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, India is an increasingly indispensable partner for the United Kingdom.” The review refers to India as an “international actor of growing importance” and seeks to “transform” India- UK relations. This is a calculated affirmation of the new India and explains the £ 1 bil trade deal secured on 4 May.

Trade was the centrepiece

The British readout of the deal talks of creation of 6,500 British jobs, more than £533 m (USD739.2) of new Indian investments in Britain and 446 million pounds of export deals for British businesses, creating over 400 British jobs.India, too, clinched the Migration and Mobility Partnership allowing 3,000 young Indians to avail employment opportunities in the UK without labour market tests.

Johnson the politician was quick to trumpet the trade success on the British media. This was diplomatic pre-emption too. Britain may be telling the European Union it has options after Brexit. India may be telling China it has friends, and it may even be sending a message to the European Union about the need to close the FTA negotiations (the India- EU summit was held on 8 May).

The real importance of this agreement is political. There are messages to China such as “diversification of global supply chains” and conduct of joint naval exercises when the British Carrier Strike Group deploys in the Indian Ocean.

The Enhanced Trade Partnership opens the doors to the FTA negotiations. This will be difficult. Will Britain lower tariffs to below EU levels, which might boost Indian agricultural exports? Will Britain ease entry of students and skilled Indian workforce, such as IT professionals? Will India lower tariffs? India has not signed a single free trade deal under the Modi government.

If poetry is imagination, diplomacy is a slow- burning fire transforming the dish into something else, without the cook’s knowledge. India would be better off considering this.

Britain and India matter to one another

As a P-5 member Britain is still a world power, and a global financial centre. It is the world’s fifth largest economy, and India is the sixth. In 2019, India’s share of the world’s GDP was 7.09 per cent and is expected to rise to 7.97 per cent by 2030, making it the world’s third largest economy.

1.5 million British Indians contribute 6 per cent of Britain’s GDP, despite being only 1.8 per cent of the population. India held the number two rank among nations helping Britain’s job creation in 2019, with 110,000 jobs.

British figures place trade at £23 bn a year, supporting more than half a million jobs.Over 2000- 2020, Britain is the sixth largest investor in India, with USD 28. 21 bn. India supplies more than 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines, including more than 1 billion doses of the UK’s Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine being manufactured in India.

But issues remain

Britain’s perceived softness on cross-border terrorism, whether it is Kashmir or Khalistan, its stand on Afghanistan, its sanctuary to financial offenders, and its interventions on the farmers’ agitation show how hard it is for India to change the part of British policy driven by internal politics. Britain gave no clear explanation of its behaviour when China took Kashmir to the UN Security Council in 2019.

“We are helpless under our laws” is a tardy argument when set against the geo-political prize of a future- first relationship. Could the UK make that psychological adjustment? Given the salience of British Pakistanis in internal politics, political survival may be the immediate prize, outweighing the more distant benefits of a stronger partnership with India.

Nor is the UK serious about India’s quest for a permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Statements of support are cost-free, but like other P-5 members, no British UN ambassador has made a policy statement on this on the floor of the UN. Consider also the 2017contention on the election of the Indian judge Dalveer Bhandari to the International Court of Justice, defeating Britain’s Christopher Greenwood in a contest going into 11 rounds.

Britain’s emphasis on democracy does not square with India’s view of itself. Modi will attend the upcoming G-7 summit in Cornwall as one of three guests. There is breathless talk about the G-7 transforming into a D-10. Evangelical espousal of democracy would hurt India’s relations with Russia and Iran and turn away non-democratic regimes like the gulf monarchies that might otherwise be willing to join a coalition to face China. Even Britain has sceptics. Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House clubbed India with China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as “rivals or, at best, awkward counterparts.”

Despite recent momentum, India’s limited access to Britain’s labour market, Britain’s trade goals, its interventions in India’s domestic affairs, India’s aversion to alliances, and the colonial legacy will remain bottlenecks.

Intentions and papers, and resets and tilts do not resolve such problems. Language does not substitute policy. If poetry is imagination, diplomacy is a slow- burning fire transforming the dish into something else, without the cook’s knowledge. India would be better off considering this.

* Jitendra Nath Misra is a former Indian ambassador. He has taught, most recently, in Jamia Millia Islamia, and advised the government of Odisha on sports.