A strategic overview of UK-India relations
Despite India’s economic relations with UK being right on track, the emergence of newer superpowers and political uncertainties have weakened the UK’s standing, potentially resulting in India gaining an upper hand.
Narendra Modi’s first term coincided with the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. For the UK, this meant that politics turned inward. While some grandiose if unlikely global visions were put forward—including the patronising, and temporally implausible, Empire 2.0—the question of the UK’s relationship to its European neighbours has dominated policymaking, and on some issues the answers remain unclear.
Occasionally mooted as a vital partner for a new Global Britain, there was little sense of what the UK-India partnership would look like in practise. In part, this reflects the lack of clarity regarding the UK’s relationship with Europe. Until that is settled, the approach to countries like India will remain secondary.
In parallel, few in India were mulling over the future relationship with the UK. Modi’s first term was very much focussed on India’s internal development. Foreign policy involved deepening engagement with the Indian Diaspora—including in the UK; regional engagement for mutual benefit—notably improving ties with Bangladesh not least as a means of improving North East India’s economic outlook; projecting strength against Pakistan, and to a lesser extent China. Beyond that, on “global challenges”, such as the trade dispute between the US and China, India’s approach was to try and sit it out, rather than actively taking sides.
The appointment of the former foreign secretary, Jaishankar, as External Affairs Minister suggests that the second term is likely to witness a more invigorated foreign policy cognisant of the international flux the world order finds itself in, and an India keener to try to actively engage.
That said, India’s priorities are likely to remain closer to home. Developing the “Act East” policy and dealing with an increasingly vociferous China, increasingly active in India’s neighbourhood. Despite political differences with China, Indian trade with China soared while Jaishankar was India’s ambassador there. While it may seem far-fetched at present, trade may well prove the gateway to a rapprochement between India and Pakistan, though that would be contingent on an array of factors.
If India’s main foreign policy focus is in and around its neighbourhood, Mauritius may well prove to be a spanner in the works for the UK-India relationship. India’s relationship with Mauritius is close. The Mauritian prime minister was one of eight regional leaders invited to Modi’s inauguration.
The dispute between the UK and Mauritius over the sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory—leased to the US until 2036—threatens to turn an asset into a liability. The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly backed Mauritius in its claim and, while non-enforceable, a continued dispute is likely to hinder the UK in positioning itself in the Indian Ocean region. Ironically, a recent agreement between the US and India provided the Indian navy access to the base, but India appears for now to be siding with Mauritius.
More generally, the re-surfacing of a colonial legacy plays badly for the UK. While the prevailing opinion in India may well be to look forward rather than back, that the UK was the colonial power rather than, say, France, explains the presence of the India Diaspora in the UK but probably gives France an advantage all other things being equal.
In economic terms, relations between the UK and India are reasonably solid. The UK is a relatively important market for Indian goods, the UK is less important for India. Investment is certainly the most positive story. The UK remains an important source of investment in India, and the UK is a significant recipient of Indian investment, though two of the larger Indian purchases—Corus and Jaguar Land Rover—have faced some difficulty. The former was sold on for £1, while Jaguar Land Rover lost £3.6bn in 2018/19.
Cultural ties are perhaps one of the strongest features of the UK-India relationship reflecting the UK’s soft power. Tourist numbers are high both ways. In 2017 almost one million Britons visited India, third after Bangladesh and the United States. Less than 350,000 Canadians were in fourth place. For Indian tourists, the UK is the fifth most-popular destination, and numbers are only going to grow. Education links too are strong: by 2021 the UK-India Newton-Bhabha programme will provided more than £400m on joint research and innovation.
In addition, the UK is increasingly focussing on promoting “technical” cooperation or sharing of best practise in specific areas which India is focussed upon. This approach—rather than seeking to persuade India to share the UK’s overall strategic outlook—seems more likely to pay long-term dividends.
Western countries and India frequently diverge in international forums, such as the United Nations. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, international norms were generally set by the West, reflecting the economic dominance of the US and Europe, along with Japan. While not all countries obeyed all of the rules, it was clear where power lay. The emergence of new economic power centres—notably China—has made such rule-making harder. This trend has been facilitated by a more protectionist US, less committed to the trans-Atlantic alliance, and European weakness, most notably as a result of Brexit.
India, historically, has pleaded exceptionalism or ended up acting as a rules-taker. But as multi-polarity takes hold, it seems likely that India may be better placed to assert itself more actively than the UK, whose ability to write the rules will, by definition, be less. But this highlights the benefits of technical cooperation in evolving issues such as Internet governance, cybersecurity or terrorism. While the UK may pride itself on its thought leadership capabilities, its recent political travails have weakened its voice and, by dint of the size of its economy, let alone its population, India’s voice will be louder than the UK’s. The closer the two can come to understand the world in the same way, the more mutually beneficial each can be to the other.
Dr Gareth Price is Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House.