As Britain negotiates its tough exit from the European Union (EU) by end of 2020, it has sought to strengthen some of its bilateral relations beyond the West. The shift from the digital format to a physical visit of UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab to India especially during the COVID-19 pandemic further strengthens the idea that London wants to upgrade its relations with New Delhi. Mr. Raab also confirmed that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day parade in 2021. India and UK have a strategic partnership since 2004; it is noteworthy that Prime Minister Johnson’s first visit abroad after the EU exit is to New Delhi. External Affairs Minister Dr. Jaishankar and Mr. Raab met within the framework of the India-UK Ministerial Dialogue that sought to strengthen and augment cooperation in five specific issues; connecting people, trade and prosperity, defence and security, climate, and health.
Both sides adopted an ambitious 10-year India-UK roadmap. In this context, Dr. Jaishankar said that, “as democratic polities, market economies and pluralistic societies, we can, we should and we will make a difference to the realization of a rules-based global order”. The discussions also covered post COVID-19 economic recovery, the situation in Afghanistan, the developments in the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific.
Britain joins a list of European countries as they scale up their Indo-Pacific policy. Foreign Secretary Raab said his country will give top priority to the Indo-Pacific given the issue of maritime security, vulnerability of supply chains and the UK will deploy a Liaison Officer at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre for Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) meant to improve Maritime Domain Awareness. Dr. Jaishankar said for India, the concept of Indo-Pacific is an articulation of globalisation. Mr. Raab also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India’s Environment and Education Ministers. Both sides agreed to work together on mutual recognition of academic qualifications
Both India and UK are looking at leadership roles in the coming years. India will be working with Britain within the UN Security Council as it assumes an elected member two-year seat from January 2021. Simultaneously, UK’s Presidency of the G7 and of the UN Climate Change Conference brings added value and Prime Minister Modi has been invited to the G7 Summit. The UK Foreign Secretary acknowledged India’s leadership role in International Solar Alliance (ISA) and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. Both sides also indicated deepening the economic partnership through a Free Trade Agreement is on the agenda. With the growing impact of technology, Mr.Raab also emphasised that defence and security partnership, cyber-security, telecom networks, 5G networks are on the table to make them more secure and resilient.
Emphasising the relations between both countries, the British Foreign Secretary highlighted the partnership on COVID-19 and the work between Oxford University, AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute India to produce the vaccine. This will bring the benefits of partnership and cooperation as both sides have resolved to invest in public health in low- and middle-income countries who will get the vaccine and thus bring affordable health care to millions of people.
Mr. Raab said, this aims to “make sure the most vulnerable and poorest countries around the world get equitable distribution and access.” The Oxford vaccine will be distributed to the world’s poorest people via the global COVAX initiative, in partnership with the World Health Organization. In addition, a new virtual UK-India vaccines hub has been announced to scale up the cooperation in the fight against coronavirus. In the face of “vaccine-nationalism”, the vaccine collaboration between Britain-India is a positive sign of scientific cooperation and the joint work on the vaccine can be viewed as a force of good. The visit shows that Britain has prioritised India as the EU exit nears. Both New Delhi and London have set a strong agenda to enhance their strategic partnership in the next decade.
Script: Prof. Ummu Salma Bava Professor and Jean Monnet Chair
Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University