UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in India to thrash out trade deal

The two countries are on the cusp of signing a free trade agreement

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly after arriving in India. Photo: James Cleverly / Twitter
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Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly arrived in India on Friday to discuss strengthening ties between the two countries.

Mr Cleverly’s meetings with officials will focus on counterterrorism efforts and negotiations aimed at securing a free trade deal.

It is his first trip abroad since being reappointed as foreign secretary by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who took office on Tuesday, in a sign that the new Tory leader wants to prioritise his government’s relationship with India.

The UK leader spoke to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the phone on Thursday, with the pair discussing the two countries' “historical links”.

His Downing Street office said Mr Sunak told Mr Modi that he “intended to build on this relationship to develop ever closer ties between our two countries”.

Earlier this week, the Diwali deadline for a trade deal between the UK and India was missed. Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman this month sparked a row with India for saying she has “reservations” about relaxing immigration restrictions as part of any pact. India said her comments were not appropriate.

Mr Cleverly shared a photo on social media showing himself smiling as he was greeted by his hosts in Mumbai.

“Fantastic to be in India,” he wrote. “Looking forward to deepening partnership as we work towards our 2030 Roadmap, building our trade links and strengthening security.”

Later, he paid his respects to victims of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, in which 166 people were killed. Ten terrorists linked to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group carried out the assault over four days.

Mr Cleverly tweeted a photo of a wreath he laid in tribute to the victims of the attack, who included three British nationals.

“The horrors of that day must never be repeated. The UK stands with India against terror,” he wrote.

On Saturday, he will travel to New Delhi, where he will speak at a special meeting of the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee.

Downing Street said Mr Cleverly will “call on countries to work together to fight online terrorism — including global terror recruitment campaigns and live-streaming of attacks”.

He will hold a meeting with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, to discuss the latest on the UK-India 2030 Roadmap. The shared British-Indian vision aims to re-energise trade, investment and technological collaboration and improve citizens' lives over the coming years.

Both parties are hoping the collaboration will help to reduce import and export barriers and boost bilateral trade to more than £86 billion ($100bn) by 2030.

Since its launch in 2022, the Roadmap has led to the commencement of trade talks, the expansion of a defence and security partnership and joint exercises to strengthen cyber security collaboration.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s largest and most powerful warship, last year led a fleet of British vessels into the Bay of Bengal in a display of unity between the nations.

Since the UK bowed out of the EU in January 2020, London has been expanding its markets and has signed several free trade agreements. Nations in the Asia-Pacific region have been of particular interest, because they are some of the fastest-growing economies.

Before Friday’s visit, Mr Cleverly said he hoped the trip would build on ties between the two nations.

“Our relationship with India is hugely important to me; as the world’s largest democracy, India is a natural partner for the UK in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “It is an economic and tech powerhouse. Our deeper ties will boost both our economies and help to tackle global security challenges.

“I look forward to working even more closely with India when it takes up the G20 [Group of 20] presidency in December.”

Mr Sunak is the first British Asian to hold the position of prime minister. He was born in Southampton to parents of Indian origin who had emigrated from Africa. His grandparents originated from British India but their birthplace, Gujranwala, lies in what is today Punjab province in Pakistan.

The prime minister is married to Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Indian tech billionaire Narayana Murthy.

Regarding Mr Sunak's conversation with Mr Modi, No 10 said: “Discussing shared global challenges, the prime minister praised Prime Minister Modi’s leadership on tackling climate change and the leaders welcomed opportunities to bolster our security, defence and economic partnership.

“The prime minister hoped the UK and India could continue to make good progress in negotiations to finalise a comprehensive free trade agreement.

“The leaders also agreed to work together as two great democracies to strengthen the developing economies of the world and looked forward to meeting in person at the G20 in Indonesia.”

After the call, Mr Sunak tweeted that he was “excited about what our two great democracies can achieve as we deepen our security, defence and economic partnership in the months and years ahead”.

In a tweet, Mr Modi said he was “glad to speak to Rishi Sunak” and pledged to work with him to strengthen bilateral ties. He said they had “agreed on the importance of early conclusion of a comprehensive and balanced FTA [free trade agreement].”

Updated: October 28, 2022, 1:39 PM