Boris Johnson's India trip an 'exciting moment' as UK makes Indo-Pacific tilt

PM's visit to be shortened because of Covid-19 situation in India

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate in Parliament, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in London, Britain, April 14, 2021, in this screen grab taken from video. Reuters TV via REUTERS
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Boris Johnson’s trip to India this month is an “exciting moment” in which the British Prime Minister will look to “finally move the UK relationship with India forward” after a series of false starts, an analyst said.

Walter Ladwig, a political scientist and South Asia expert at King's College London, said the trip could provide a "visible push that gets people excited and focused" as the UK makes its vaunted "tilt" to the Indo-Pacific after Brexit.

Dr Ladwig told The National that more tangible results on trade would be fantastic but would require an "11th-hour breakthrough" after merely preliminary talks so far.

He said it was disappointing that the trip had been truncated by the second wave of Covid-19 infections in India.

Downing Street announced that Mr Johnson's planned three-day visit would be reduced to a “shorter programme” with the bulk of meetings taking place on April 26.

The UK’s landmark foreign policy review last month included a lengthy passage on India and laid out a vision for a transformation in bilateral relations.

It called for re-energised trade and investment links, as well as greater defence and security co-operation in the Indian Ocean.

"India is going to be a key partner for anybody operating in that region," said Aaditya Dave, a South Asia specialist at the Royal United Services Institute.

The UK and India announced a so-called enhanced trade partnership in February, but getting a full free trade deal would be "a lot more challenging", Mr Dave said.

Also potentially on the table is a logistical support agreement between the two militaries, similar to those that India signed with France, South Korea and others.

Defence links are fairly strong on a technical level but the countries' defence ministers last met in 2017 and Mr Johnson will aim to provide a political impetus to the relationship, Mr Dave said.

A UK carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth will be sent to the Indian Ocean later this year.

Dr Ladwig said a succession of British governments had sought a closer partnership with India, but the “receptivity on the Indian side was not necessarily always there”.

“This relationship has had potential for so long but it’s just been largely stagnant,” he said.

“We’re now seeing very clear signals, very obvious signals from the Modi government that they are interested in upgrading relations with the UK.

“They see the UK as being one among many states that can play an important role with respect to India and the Indo-Pacific.”

The UK’s tougher stance on China and Pakistani-sponsored terrorism in recent years had eased some Indian doubts about co-operation with Britain, analysts said.

The large Indian and Pakistani diasporas in the UK mean that Britain has historically sought to "walk a very tight rope" between the two countries, Mr Dave said.

"That's always been an issue, and this is one challenge that not many other countries have to face when dealing with India," he said.

Covid-19 forces changes to PM's India visit

Mr Johnson was initially due to attend India's Republic Day parade in January, but the trip was postponed because of surging coronavirus cases in the UK.

Now, the Covid-19 situation in India has forced another rescheduling, with the trip shortened and the UK prime minister concentrating on high-level discussions with the Indian government and business leaders.

“I do think the symbolism really matters and it would have been really fantastic for Boris Johnson to have been at the Republic Day parade,” Dr Ladwig said.

It's hopefully the starting point ... to get the relationship where it could and should be

“You absolutely need to have substance there and you need to have tangible targets to move forward.

“But I think it’s also the kind of thing that just really needs that sort of visible push that gets people excited and focused.

“I think that stuff matters, I think the narrative matters, I think the way the relationship is talked about matters.

“Coming back with a big win would be great, if there is some kind of 11th-hour breakthrough on trade that means they get something more than just an agreement to reach an agreement at some point. That would be fantastic.

“But if there are really solid discussions, if there’s a joint statement that comes out that points to real areas of agreement … that is still important.

“It's potentially an exciting moment. It is very disappointing that it’s been postponed and then truncated, but it's hopefully the starting point of playing a bit of catch-up to try to get the relationship where it could and should be.”

One area of co-operation highlighted by the UK strategic review was science and technology, after India’s Serum Institute partnered with the University of Oxford on the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.

However, delayed shipments from India forced ministers in the UK to announce a setback to Britain's vaccine supplies last month.

Dr Ladwig said the episode was “not necessarily a bright, shining example” of co-operation between the UK and India.

But analysts said there was still an opportunity for the countries to work together in science and technology.

"I don't think that necessarily takes away from the fact that there is quite deep co-operation on this particular topic," Mr Dave said.

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