With the UK’s departure from the EU looming, a recent conference addressed Indo-British relations in a shifting global environment

Britain must find a ‘sweet spot’ of convergence with India by addressing core concerns such as student visas, opportunities for skilled Indian professionals in the UK and cross-border terrorism exported from Pakistan, whilst also dealing with geopolitical issues, according to experts at a recent seminar in London, co-hosted by The Democracy Forum and the Henry Jackson Society.

The UK-India relationship goes far beyond trade and investment, said Gareth Bayley, Director for South Asia and Afghanistan at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as the two nations are also partners in being a global force for good, showing commitment to eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 and expanding access to sustainable energy, among other aims. He also spoke of the shared ‘grand challenges’ that lay ahead, and potential blocks to cooperation such as the migration issue.

In reaching a closer alignment with India, Britain needs to acknowledge the constraints imposed on India by its neighbours, suggested TDF President Lord Bruce, and it must also understand how India wants to be perceived as a global power, now it has come into its prime

Dr Alan Mendoza, Director of the Henry Jackson Society, said that Prime Minister Modi had shown he is willing to shatter, where possible, the constraints to which Lord Bruce referred. He also spoke of potential stumbling blocks to the relationship, including defence and security, though ultimately he saw many opportunities in, for example, diplomacy, trade and terrorism cooperation.

The first panel, focusing on soft power in UK-India ties, was chaired by Dr John Hemmings, Director of Asia Studies at HJS, who highlighted the similarities between TDF and HJS in the way they view foreign policy through values such as plurality, the rule of law and press freedom.

Dr Champa Patel of Chatham House questioned the ‘special’ nature of the India-UK relationship, saying that, while there was much potential, there was also a dissonance between, on the one hand, trade rhetoric that stresses the importance of the relationship and, on the other, issues such as visa allocations and anti-terrorism legislation being used to deport highly skilled Indian workers. Unless Britain could bridge these differing narratives, it is, she warned, in danger of losing its special relationship with India.

For Professor Sumantra Bose of the London School of Economics, uncertainty is not unique to Britain as it approaches Brexit, as this is also an issue both in India and globally. He considered the three key ‘irritants’ affecting UK-India relations – greater restrictions on student visas, the high cost of multiple-entry visas and the presence of Indian fugitives in the UK – and said there is a need to make UK-India relations more robust by removing these irritants and finding the ‘sweet spots’ of convergence.

(L to r) Dr Champa Patel, Dr John Hemmings, Prof. Sumantra Bose
(L to r) Dr Champa Patel, Dr John Hemmings, Prof. Sumantra Bose

On the second panel, which addressed Britain and India in the Indo-Pacific. Aaditya Nikhil Dave of RUSI discussed defence and security relations between Britain and India, as well as India’s security ties with other countries such as Israel and France, and opportunities for security cooperation. Although there have been misperceptions and missteps within the relationship – including a mismatch in Britain and India’s security alignments vis-à-vis terrorism, especially cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan – Dave felt the foundations were essentially strong, and longstanding agreements continue to emerge all the time.

‘Britain and the China-India nexus’ was the focus for Humphrey Hawksley of the BBC, who considered the bigger picture that is emerging about democracy and authoritarianism. He spoke of post-Brexit Britain’s role in the Indo-Pacific security architecture, the UK’s need for trade deals with big Asian countries, namely India and China, and the stumbling blocks that accompany China’s economic leverage in Asia. Hawksley also spoke about Russia’s role as India’s only reliable weapons supplier.

Dr Walter Ladwig III, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College, London, addressed maritime challenges and rules-based orders in the Indo-Pacific, considering how these challenges have arisen in the region through both the rise of China and the retreat of the United States, meaning that other countries have to take active measure to fill the role previously taken by the US.

The third and final panel, which viewed Indo-UK relations through the prism of economic prosperity, saw Julian Jessop of the Institute of Economic Affairs discussing the economic and political background to Brexit and how any agreement would affect global Britain’s ability to develop trade, investment and infrastructure projects with India. Leaving both the single market and customs union will, said Mr Jessop, open up huge free trade opportunities for Britain, though even with friendly countries such as India, there are still concerns over issues such as migration.

India’s 2016 demonetisation has been a ‘qualified success’, said Duncan Bartlett, Editor of Asian Affairs magazine, and has gone some way to combating corruption and raising more tax revenue. While there is still an important debate to be had regarding income inequality in India, looking at India from an international perspective, one can see that PM Modi’s large-scale reform programme has achieved much, including improved e-commerce, safer trains and more reliable insurance, and the economy is the fastest-growing in the world.

Barry Gardiner's closing address
Barry Gardiner’s closing address

Barry Gardiner, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade and Chair of The Democracy Forum, gave a rousing summing up, in which he praised the many interesting points raised in this mixed debate, but also expressed frustration at the failure to tease out more discussion on the lack of alignment in trade and security policies in Britain’s approach to India. He warned that today we are facing the most serious challenge to a multi-lateral rules-based order than we have ever seen, with the WTO is being undermined as the very framework of global trade. He also stressed the need to explore not just the glitches in Indo-British relations with regard to, say, visas, but also to identify the real problems in security cooperation, in order to overcome them. India and Britain have so much to talk about regarding their bi-lateral relationship in sectors such as defence, education, tourism, energy and IT, and this must, said Gardiner, happen at a central level.




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