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View: Boris Johnson comes to bat on familiar turf but challenges galore in UK-India ties

View: Boris Johnson comes to bat on familiar turf but challenges galore in UK-India ties

View: Boris Johnson comes to bat on familiar turf but challenges galore in UK-India ties
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By KV Prasad  Apr 21, 2022 6:33:03 PM IST (Updated)

PM Boris Johnson is a familiar figure in India and associated with the country for long both in his personal capacity and as a politician. Yet, after two aborted attempts, he arrived on Thursday for a two-day visit that would conclude on Friday with an official meeting with PM Narendra Modi. Defence, Security and Economy are on the agenda as is Ukraine, the hotspot. Indian concerns include presence of Khalistani elements and their activities in UK, and the country political views on Jammu and Kashmir

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is no stranger to India and has visited the country on more occasions than he may care to count. Yet, as he stepped out of the aircraft in Ahmedabad on Thursday morning, it was the first trip since assuming office as the British premier.

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Last year Johnson was to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade, which had to be put off as the Covid19 situation in the United Kingdom turned into a matter of concern while another rescheduled visit too could not go through. Ironically, the British Prime Minister reached India for a two-day visit immediately after British Parliament were engaged in a discussion on the violation of restrictions by Johnson during the lockdown.


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The official component of bilateral engagement with Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in New Delhi on Friday as both leaders sit down to take a view on the progress of the Strategic Partnership in the backdrop of soaring expectations over a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) under discussion for a while now.

Ever since Brexit and the severing of ties with the European Union, the United Kingdom is working on bilateral trade agreements with several countries and after years of hesitancy, New Delhi too is working on trade pacts with several countries including the UAE and an early harvest deal with Australia, recently. India today is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and the proposed pact aims at a modest target of doubling trade and investment by 2030.

During 2019-20, trade between the two countries stood at $15.45 billion with the balance in favour of India. Between April to August last year, India exported merchandise worth $2.33 billion and imported $1.47 billion. Coinciding with the visit, India and UK businesses will conclude new investment and export agreements for over British Pound 1 billion in areas such as software engineering to health.

Besides economy, the thrust of the bilateral discussion will be on collaboration in the field of security and defence especially cyber-security, 5G technology and manufacturing defence equipment under the flagship ‘Make in India’ campaign.

Since the signing of the Defence and International Security Partnership towards the end of 2015, there have been several rounds of official-level engagement to explore the roadmap for defence production and collaboration of the defence industry. At present some 70 companies in the UK supply goods for aircraft and related equipment besides supporting platforms like the Jaguar, Mirage and Kiran aircraft. With India stressing on ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat”, international defence manufacturing from several countries are working on a model to build in India even as the debate over the transfer of technology remains a contentious work in progress.

A firm political push from the top leadership should provide impetus to propel the quiet work of diplomats and bureaucrats who also await clarity on certain contemporary issues like the ongoing war in Ukraine, Jammu and Kashmir and Khalistani elements operating from the UK. The overhang of comfort level between Britain and Pakistan bilateral ties remains.

While a section of the strategic community in Britain views issues like J&K and Khalistani supporters as irritants, New Delhi expects London to take a firmer stand, especially with attempts made by MPs to raise the issues in the British Parliament.

The Indian diaspora is one of the largest ethnic communities in the UK with some 2 million including the majority of British nationals of Indian origin who remain engaged with issues back home just as the larger 4 million South Asian diaspora representing voices from the sub-continent. India and the United Kingdom will have to continue working together towards common ground and address these concerns. Over the years, the UK maintained it would act against anyone violating the law.

Ukraine

Prime Minister Johnson is playing a significant role in working for a solution. The India trip comes after the recent visit of PM Johnson to Kyiv where he met President Volodymyr Zelensky. The British position supports the Western approach shaped by Washington which stands in contrast to India’s stand.

The situation in Ukraine will be on the discussion agenda when both the Prime Ministers meet and are aware of New Delhi’s approach, London sought to convey that Boris Johnson will not lecture India but would share his country’s perspective while understanding India’s viewpoint.

The days of delivering preachy talks are certainly a thing of the past and indication of such an approach came when US President Joe Biden met PM Modi in virtual mode hours before the 2+2 dialogue in Washington earlier this month.

Indo-Pacific

The larger vision of the UK's ‘tilt towards Indo-Pacific’ would shape this aspect of bilateral relations.  Last year, the United Kingdom deployed its Carrier Strike Group in the Indian Ocean region this year in line with its policy towards the region.

Last month following consultations on Indo-Pacific, the United States and United Kingdom said both countries would work together to invest in partnerships with the Pacific Islands, support the centrality of ASEAN and advance cooperation with member countries in the group and enhance ties with India. Till date, action from the UK has largely been around defence and security while there is a promise to expand cooperation on the economic front.

— KV Prasad is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. Views expressed are personal
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