RUSI Newsbrief, with Jack Wright, 23 November, 2017
At the launch of the Access India Programme in late September, the assistant vice president of Invest India, Vivek Abraham, announced that India hopes to increase UK exports by ensuring that the ‘red carpet is rolled out’ to British small- and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) looking to invest in India. Launched by the High Commission of India in London, together with the India Business Council, the initiative is a hopeful sign that New Delhi is willing to expand its current relations with the UK as the latter continues to negotiate Brexit and reformulate its place in the world.
While it is true that Brexit has seen the UK mired in deep uncertainty at the domestic level, leaving the EU offers a historically unique opportunity for Britain’s foreign policymakers to sit down and think of a new global role for the country at a time of great international flux – a role apart from the Europe-centred approach adopted since the end of the Second World War. It is also a timely opportunity for New Delhi – which has discovered that its traditional non-aligned policy has left it with few allies.
The main cause of the flux in the global order is, without a doubt, the rise of China, which has both the ambition and the means to re-order the liberal, rules-based international order to its liking. As an outward-reaching authoritarian power that is increasingly intolerant of liberal values, China’s ambitions do not bode well for the liberal part of the order. The fact that Beijing seems to view both domestic and international law as subject to Communist Party control does not bode well for the rules-based part of the global order. It has ignored or selectively interpreted aspects of international law – such as Beijing’s sovereignty-expanding interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – or simply sought to change facts on the ground unilaterally, using salami-slicing tactics. Its island-building across a major global trade route is one example, its attempts to shift the Sino-Indian border using troops on the ground is another.
It will therefore increasingly fall to powers such as the US, Japan, India, the UK and the EU to attempt to constrain – and re-direct – China’s efforts to construct an authoritarian global order. India – another rising power within the current liberal order – is an ideal partner in this endeavour. While India does not – strictly speaking – consider itself liberal, Indian society is informed by classical liberal principles and is relatively tolerant, with a secular constitution promising justice, equality and liberty to its nine major religious groups. India also has a strong democratic tradition, a nominally independent judiciary and a (albeit partial) free press, among the most liberal in South Asia. Given that two major economic and security partners of the UK – Japan and the US – are fostering closer ties with India, there is also the possibility of strategic complementarity between London, Washington, Tokyo and Delhi on Chinese efforts to control global trade routes.
Going ‘East of Aden’, a UK shorn of its EU identity will want to redefine itself in ways that complement its strengths. In addition to becoming a bulwark for the liberal, rules based order, the UK also has more pressing business with India in the form of cooperation on cyber and counter terrorism. However, there are many gaps in the relationship that will require work before such lofty strategic dialogues can have meaning. Delhi has not always been open to cultivating such a close relationship with London. During the Cold War, India followed Nehru’s non-alignment posture and also formed a burgeoning security partnership with Moscow, aided by the strong residue of post-imperial resentment. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, India began its own economic reforms of the ‘Licence Raj’ – the excessive regulations on setting up and running businesses – in a bid to escape the economic chaos that had characterised the 1980s; but Delhi remained uncertain of what type of foreign policy it should pursue. The result was non-alignment by default, causing a regrettable absence of a major Asian power in regional politics.
While the past two decades have been dominated by the rise of China, the rise of India as an active global power might be no less important: of the original four BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), only India and China have realised the growth predicted by economist Jim O’Neill – who coined the term ‘BRIC’ – in the early 2000s. As a consequence of its ongoing rise, India has gradually recognised the need to play a regional and diplomatic role on the international stage. Delhi has either strengthened or built strong relationships with a number of middling powers across Asia, including Vietnam, South Korea and Japan, as part of its ‘Look East’ policy. The visit to India in early September by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was hailed by many Indian broadsheets as the start of a potential alliance with the world’s third largest economy. It came almost exactly three years after the two states agreed to double by 2019 both the amount of Japanese direct investment in India and the number of companies working there. When it comes to China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected in May 2014, has sought a nuanced approach, balancing a firm line on India’s northern borders with an openness to Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI); Chinese FDI increased in 2014 and 2015, with the May 2015 signing of cooperation deals worth £14 billion the most obvious success.
By comparison, London has failed to capitalise on India’s rise from middle to regional power: although former Prime Minister David Cameron secured rising levels of investment before his resignation in June 2016, the UK remains only India’s 12th biggest trading partner — and there are signs that this ranking may drop even further. The inability by Theresa May to secure a comprehensive economic bilateral agreement during her visit to India in November 2016 was regarded by many British commentators as a relative failure, caused mostly by an inability to exchange continued visas for Indians to the UK for UK access to India’s growing services sector. Now many young Indians are choosing to turn towards Germany, Australia and the US – rather than the UK – for educational and employment opportunities.
Despite this, there is much to gain in attempting to foster closer ties. A Commonwealth report entitled ‘Brexit: Opportunities for India’ asserted that a free trade agreement between the UK and India could see the value of British exports to India increase from £4.2 billion (in 2015) to £6.3 billion, an increase of 33%. Much of this bump would simply come off existing trade, since a UK–India free trade agreement could dispose of the high tariffs that currently exist (British exports into India average around 14.8%, while Indian exports into the UK average 8.4%). The UK has significant human resources that might help to develop this new relationship with India. There are approximately 1.5 million Britons of Indian origin, and so the UK has a strong diaspora that can act as human bridges in a policy environment where trust is pivotal. Key policy leaders – including Alok Sharma and (despite her recent fall from grace) Priti Patel – reveal the depth of this growing network, which could prove instrumental in efforts to mutually enrich the ties between India and the UK.
Moreover, according to a British Council report, young Indians continue to identify with British culture, ranking the UK as the second-most attractive global economy after the US. With an immediate application rate of 4,000 in 2014 alone for the Generation UK–India programme for shortterm study and work placements, it is clear that the UK should tap into the diaspora to strengthen its longstanding historical connections with India in the era of ‘Global Britain’.
In a recent report on global capabilities, James Rogers, Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society, created a power index using seven key indices, including economic clout, diplomatic leverage and military strength. With its strong assets, unique geographical advantages, far-flung network of bases and strong defence-industrial complex, he argued that British hard power could be formidable. The UK has clearly looked to bolster its ‘strategic ambition’ in the Asia-Pacific through its naval capacity: in an address at the Defence Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair in September 2017, First Sea Lord Sir Philip Jones insisted that the implementation of the National Shipbuilding Strategy (published by the Ministry of Defence) would be a vital precursor to any substantial future regional presence. Although the UK currently has established defensive relationships (Five Eyes, ANZUS, FPDA) with a string of US allies (including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei), India should be considered as a future security partner of the first order.
The global landscape is reconfiguring itself as a number of states gain increasing power and as the US, Japan and Europe decline in relative terms. One outcome of this shift has been the cross-fertilisation of US partnerships and alliances across the Asia-Pacific region in what was once a traditionally bilateral system. Japan– India defence ties have been growing on the back of close US support and engagement; the relationship between the two states is now a quasi-alliance in the fields of defence industry and defence cooperation. While China and Russia have viewed such alliance networking with suspicion, their actions in the South China Sea and Ukraine have to some extent fostered these new relationships. Concerned with what they see as piecemeal attacks on the current rules-based order, Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, and New Delhi have begun to engage in closer strategic cooperation, not to contain Beijing or Moscow, but to deter them. Indeed, the four met on the sidelines of a recent APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting in a rebirth of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. This reshaping of the strategic landscape is something that the UK might lend itself to as it disengages from the strategic passivity of the European project.
At the 2017 DSEI in London, Sir Philip stated, ‘Having invested so much practical and political capital in [the development of British carrier strike capacity], our American friends will be watching closely to see if the UK is serious about remaining their partner of choice’. As the Trump administration looks to firm up US comprehensive national power through tax reforms and new economic bilaterals, there is a sort of logical symmetry in London joining other nations engaged in this high-level security cooperation. Indeed, London already has historically deep ties with Washington, has fairly strong ties with Tokyo – including a 2+2 strategic dialogue – and has similar concerns about the future of the global order. A strategic bilateral with New Delhi would foster both this strategic socialisation and an overall deterrence strategy, as well as build on areas of cooperation already in existence, such as cyber security and international counter terrorism. Debates on the rights and wrongs of Brexit are beside the point now. Now is the time for London’s foreign policy community to be debating about the future of Britain’s global posture at a time of great flux. Of course, there will be many short-term challenges, particularly regarding London and Brussels; however, there will also be many more long-term opportunities.
The flux in the global order, China’s attempts to shape that order, India’s rise as a new power in that order and the relative decline of liberal democracies mean that there is a desperate need for a new British strategy on how London will confront these major events. Confronting the collective rise of Asia, it would be foolish for the UK to view its ejection from the European project as a net loss. It is now able – if indeed it chooses – to become a truly global power with relationships and partnerships across the world. Since the UK is better poised to enhance relations with powers that share common values than with aggressive competitors, it would be odd if India – with all its potential as a democratic power – were not at the top of the list of future partners in the Asia-Pacific.
In April 2018, the UK has a unique opportunity to begin strengthening its relationship with India in the form of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which will take place in London and Windsor. Not only should Modi be invited, but he should be welcomed with the ‘reddest carpet’ possible. While there is scepticism in India on the UK’s attempt to re-engage using the Commonwealth, Delhi is also confronting its own challenges – not least from Islamist terrorism and an increasingly assertive China – and should not neglect an opportunity to reshape its own international isolation. As China’s economic diplomacy slowly brings states around India into Beijing’s orbit, Delhi could do with shaking off its nostalgia for a nonalignment that never really existed and adjust to the fact that the global order is changing. Now is the time for a ‘Golden Era’ of bilateral relations; now is the time for London and Delhi to develop a new ‘special relationship’.