As the United Kingdom prepares itself for a post-Brexit era, its policies are taking a sharp turn towards India. The UK is expecting its Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, a British-Indian to succeed the incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A British-Indian Prime Minister coming to power would, of course, bolster India-UK ties. But it seems that the UK is witnessing a major pivot towards India even before a British-Indian PM comes to power in the UK.
According to the latest reports, India and the UK are in the final stages of agreeing on a key defence logistics agreement. For India and the UK, the defence logistics agreement is a highly symbolic move which would ultimately result in very close ties. For London, closer ties with India reflect a policy shift being carried out by Boris Johnson’s government. The Boris government is presently finalising its historic once-in-a-generation Integrated Review of foreign policy, defence and international development in the post-Brexit era.
Jan Thompson, acting High Commissioner of the UK to India recently said that India will “come through as a very strong theme” in the Integrated Review. Thompson’s remarks make it clear that Indo-British ties are headed for a major reinvigoration.
As for the UK, it has realised that once out of the European Union (EU), it will have to look for new options. A post-Brexit London’s commercial and trading interests would be focussed in the Indo-Pacific. The UK is looking to enhance trading partnership with countries like India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Vietnam which would become crucial to the British economy especially in the context of a “no-deal” Brexit threat.
The UK cannot afford to ignore India in its calculations for a post-Brexit era. India sits right in the middle of the Indo-Pacific and geographically controls the Strait of Malacca– a narrow stretch of water forming the main shipping channel between Indian and Pacific Oceans. In fact, the reports of India-UK defence logistics pact suggest that the UK is picking sides and is moving beyond the era of balancing out its relationships outside the European Union.
Britain is entering the Indo-Pacific fray for purely commercial reasons, but the changing geopolitics is such that commercial interests in the Indo-Pacific go hand-in-hand with security interests. And this is why an India-UK defence logistics agreement becomes both symbolically and strategically crucial.
It is, therefore, not a matter of surprise that the UK recently worked out an ‘Enhanced Trade Partnership’, a possible precursor to the larger Free Trade Agreement (FTA), with India. And at the same time, the two nations are also in the final stages of a defence logistics pact. Indo-UK relationship is heading in a direction where the two nations will be cooperating deeply both in terms of economics and security.
Avinash Paliwal, an International Relations expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies, said, “A defence logistics pact between India and the UK is significant for multiple reasons. Apart from the military strategic value of such a pact, especially in the IOR (Indian Ocean Rim), it signals a foreign policy shift on London’s part on the China and Pakistan questions”.
Avinash added, “For long, the UK has tried to balance relations between China and the US, as well as India and Pakistan. Such a defence logistics pact affords clarity of intent i.e. the UK is increasingly wary of China, and is unlikely to let Pakistan’s sensitivities hinder a truly strategic partnership with India (something that has been the case for many years).”
As such the defence logistics pact is a signal from the United Kingdom to China. London is assuring New Delhi that it will no longer try to balance out things between India and the US on one side and China on the other. Moreover, the UK will also not seek to balance its relationships between India and Pakistan. London is actually choosing New Delhi over India’s two neighbouring rivals.
India and the United Kingdom (UK) have a lot of history behind them. However, the present-day geopolitics is such that both of them share converging interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific. Going ahead, the level of trust between the two can deepen, paving the way for a sharp turn in British strategy towards India.