MUMBAI // On the final day of a tour of India that was devoted largely to deepening UK-India economic ties, the British Prime Minister David Cameron was mired in controversy over his comments criticising Pakistan. On Wednesday, in Bangalore, Mr Cameron warned Pakistan against promoting the "export of terror, whether to India ... Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world".
His statement ignited a diplomatic row with Islamabad, a crucial Nato ally on the war in Afghanistan. "A bilateral visit aimed at attracting business could have been conducted without damaging the prospects of regional peace," Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan's high commissioner in Britain, wrote in The Guardian. Yesterday Mr Cameron defended his statements, saying he was only speaking his mind and did not intend to damage relations with Islamabad.
"I think it's important to speak frankly and clearly about these issues. I have always done that in the past and will do so in the future," he said. The diplomatic row aside, the purpose of Mr Cameron's two-day trip to India was aimed at cultivating new economic ties with its former colony and rising regional power to boost Britain's recession-wracked economy. Mr Cameron arrived in India on Wednesday with a large delegation of cabinet ministers and businessmen.
Britain faces its biggest budget deficit since the Second World War, prompting the government to axe public spending which has led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. With its traditional economic partners, the US and the EU, also caught in deep economic turmoil, Britain aims to build a "special relationship" with India, a rapidly growing Asian economy. "In the US, they used to say, 'Go West, young man' to find opportunity and fortune," Mr Cameron wrote in a column in The Hindu, an English-language daily. "For today's entrepreneurs, the real promise is in the East."
"The aim of his visit was to use India's economic dynamism to help Britain's status as a major global economy," said Harsh Pant, a professor in the department of defence studies at King's College in London. "As the centre of gravity of global economics and politics shifts to the Asia-Pacific region, Britain is looking to build relations with emerging powers [there]. In a strange way, Britain today needs India more than India needs Britain."
The highlight of Mr Cameron's trip was the US$1.1 billion (Dh4bn) deal BAE Systems, Europe's biggest defence contractor, and engine maker Rolls-Royce signed with an Indian government-owned firm to deliver Hawk advanced trainer jets to India. Mr Cameron made it clear that Britain was eager to tap into India's multibillion-dollar defence market. India's Tata Group, which employs 47,000 people in Britain, is the single largest manufacturing employer in the country. Tata Steel purchased British steel company Corus for $13 billion (Dh48 billion) in 2007, India's biggest overseas acquisition. Mr Cameron stressed the need for more Indian companies to set up shop in Britain.
India's growing population is also a lucrative market for British companies such as cellular giant Vodafone, which has more than 100 million customers in India. Britain also announced that it would, just like the US, permit the export of nuclear technology to India for civilian purposes. This would enable British companies to exploit India's lucrative $175 billion (Dh643 billion) nuclear market. Along with economic ties, Mr Cameron's trip also focused on overlapping foreign policy interests between the two country.
"For all the talk of 'decline' in London, Britain would want to keep punching well above its weight in world affairs," said C Raja Mohan, a New Delhi-based foreign affairs commentator. "A strong partnership with India should help Britain prolong its place at the global high table." After India sought independence from Britain in 1947, the two countries drifted apart. India's proximity to the former Soviet Union during the Cold War did not go down well with Britain. Likewise, Britain's tilt towards India's nuclear, Pakistan, over the historic dispute of Kashmir was perceived as "meddling" by India, observers say.
"If Cameron can bury the ghost of Kashmir, once and for all, he will remove an important source of lingering Indian distrust of Britain," said Mr Mohan. Mr Cameron categorically ruled out any role that Britain could play as a mediator, a stand that marks a radical departure from the policies of his predecessor, Gordon Brown. "In many ways this visit will be a watershed in Indo-British ties as it addresses India's fundamental problems with the traditional British approach towards the sub-continent," said Mr Pant.