Post-Brexit Britain will be seeking closer ties with countries such as India, but the relationship is not getting off to the best of starts, reports Ashis Ray
In the referendum campaign which led to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Brexiteers held aloft the prospect of free trade with the Commonwealth, and especially an arrangement with India, which in due course is predicted to emerge as the planet’s third largest economy. Since Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy, such a deal was presented as mutually advantageous.
Indeed, Liam Fox, a leading Brexiteer appointed Secretary of State with a portfolio specially tailored for him – International Trade – hot-footed to India to explore non-tariff prospects. No such agreement can, of course, officially be negotiated until the United Kingdom has officially quit the EU, which at best is more than two years away. India’s view, though, appears to be that a comprehensive free trade treaty is not on the agenda of even informal talks.
India has been discussing a free trade agreement with the EU for the past nine years; the outgoing British prime minister, David Cameron, was particularly enthusiastic about fast-tracking this process. So, while India may not thrust Britain to ‘the back of the queue’ – as President Barack Obama said the US would – a favourable free access deal with 27 countries and a market of 450 million will naturally be more attractive to Delhi than an understanding with one country, with a population of 60 million.
In the aftermath of Cameron’s 2010 visit to India, diplomats both in South Block and Whitehall were unanimous that bilateral ties between the two countries had never been better. Trade increased, though it fell short of the target of £20 billion by 2015. Closer co-operation was realised in counter-terrorism, defence and security matters, but differences remained over Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya, not to mention Pakistan.
It would be fair to say that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not quite reciprocate Cameron’s exuberance about an ‘enhanced partnership’, while his globe-trotting successor, Narendra Modi, did not get around to visiting Britain until he had been to nearly 30 other countries. As for Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, she may have transmitted an unhelpful diplomatic signal. Under Cameron, day-to-day affairs with India were dealt with by Hugo Swire, who was of minister of state rank. Presently, this responsibility rests with Alok Sharma, a parliamentary under-secretary. Even if unintended, this could be interpreted as a downgrading of relations by the Foreign Office.
Another sign that the partnership could be closer came at the September annual United Nations peacekeeping conference of defence ministers in London. A follow-up to last year’s leaders’ summit in New York, hosted by Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, it attempted to consolidate the objective of ‘zero tolerance’ of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers. But India not only refused to sign the joint communiqué, drafted by Britain and issued by over 60 of the participating countries, but the Indian minister of state for defence, Subhas Ramrao Bhamre, left no one in doubt about his country’s displeasure.
India takes pride in being the single largest contributor to UN peacekeeping. Over the years, an estimated 230,000 Indian troops (including an all-female policing unit posted in Liberia) have taken part in these missions; at least 167 soldiers have laid down their lives on UN duty. But Bhamre dissociated India from the text of the London communiqué, ‘as we believe that the document does not adequately reflect the complexities and challenges involved in contemporary UN peacekeeping operations’.
The draft was, according to a diplomatic source, presented as a fait accompli – ‘take it or leave’ was allegedly the British position. Bhamre said India had not been consulted over the drafting of the communiqué; there was no response to requests for comment from the Foreign Office and the British Ministry of Defence. At least 14 Asian countries did sign the communiqué, including India’s immediate neighbours, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, making Delhi’s rejection conspicuous.
The disagreement might appear minor, but it is not the best start to May’s pledge to ‘make a success of Brexit’ – at least when it comes to India.
Ashis Ray is a journalist who has worked for the BBC, the Ananda Bazar Group and The Times of India. He was CNN’s founding South Asia bureau chief in Delhi, and is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent