British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to India during the Ukraine war is aimed at doubling two-way trade, cementing what Mr Johnson has called a “strategic” partnership amid a growing rift between the West and Russia.
His two-day visit on Thursday comes at a time when New Delhi has hedged its geopolitical position, keeping ties with Cold War strategic partner Russia despite growing pressure from the West.
“PM Boris Johnson's visit to New Delhi signifies the importance of India’s role in the dynamically changing global order,” B Rahul Kamath, a research assistant with Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation’s Strategic Studies programme, told The National.
It marks his first visit to the historic partner country after his planned trips to New Delhi last January and later in April were cancelled. This was due to the rising number of Covid-19 cases triggered by the Delta variant.
Mr Johnson is scheduled to arrive in the western Gujarat state — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state — where he is expected to interact with local businessmen and announce new health, science and technology projects.
He will also tour the historic city of Ahmedabad, the ancestral home of around half of the Anglo-Indian population in Britain.
He is then expected to travel to the capital New Delhi on Friday and hold “in-depth talks” with Mr Modi on the UK and India’s strategic defence, diplomatic and economic partnership.
Ukraine war agenda
The prime ministers will discuss the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, which has been under attack from Russia since February 24.
Before his trip, Mr Johnson called India a “highly valued strategic partner for the UK” at a time when “we are facing threats to peace and prosperity from autocratic states,” in an apparent reference to Russia.
“It is vital that democracies and friends stick together,” Mr Johnson tweeted last week.
Mr Johnson is the latest high-ranking dignitary to visit India after a number of Western diplomats visited New Delhi as the South Asian country walks a tightrope of diplomacy over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Last month, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss visited New Delhi to boost bilateral cooperation and urge India to shun its dependence on Russia.
India has refused to condemn its Cold War ally Moscow and has repeatedly abstained from West-backed resolutions that censured Russia at the UN.
Moscow is New Delhi’s biggest arms supplier and the two countries have increased energy trade in recent weeks, despite crippling economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the West and Asian allies Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
The two nations are also working on a financial plan to bypass global dollar trade through their rupee-rouble mechanism.
India's long-standing Russia ties
New Delhi’s actions over Russia have palpably irked its Western allies — mainly the US and the European Union, which have imposed punitive economic sanctions on Moscow.
The UK has been one of the main suppliers of weapons to Kyiv in its fight against Moscow.
But India’s refusal to denounce Moscow has not dented its ties with its Western partners, which experts believe is due to its role in geopolitics, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region that is currently dominated by China.
Mr Kamath says Mr Johnson’s arrival is a major statement and also a validation of India's positioning in the current geopolitics.
“His visit could catapult the existing India-UK relations, giving them a chance to rediscover and reconfigure their historical relations by focusing on newer areas of cooperation such as the Indo-Pacific region, digital infrastructure, cybersecurity, defence and military cooperation and trade relations,” he said.
Post Brexit trade deal
Experts say Mr Johnson will use the visit to bolster diplomatic, strategic and free trade ties between India and the UK, particularly its post-Brexit strategy.
India is expected to overtake its former coloniser as the world’s fifth-largest economy by 2025.
“My visit to India will deliver on the things that really matter to the people of both our nations — from job creation and economic growth, to energy security and defence,” Mr Johnson said in a statement last week.
India is the second-largest FDI investor in the UK. Its exports to the UK stood at $8.15 billion in 2020-21, while imports aggregated at $4.95 billion.
Since the controversy of Brexit — the UK’s tortuous exit from the EU trading bloc — London has been expanding its markets and signed free-trade agreements, especially with countries in the Asia-Pacific region which are some of the fastest-growing economies.
London has also been negotiating a free-trade agreement with India under a Roadmap 2030 that outlines plans for the bilateral relationship over the next 10 years.
With the FTA, both nations aim to reduce barriers of imports and exports and could boost bilateral trade to over $100 billion by 2030.
Both the countries have been negotiating the proposed trade deal and expect to conclude the agreement by the end of this year.
Possible trade barriers include environmental regulations; non-tariff barriers, including labour regulations; exemption of goods; and protecting geographical indicators on some goods, among other issues.
But “plausible solutions can be organically and sustainably carved out with consistent high-level meetings”, Mr Kamath said.