LONDON/NEW DELHI -- With his planned visit to India twice postponed owing to COVID-19, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a virtual meeting with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on Tuesday during which they announced a 10-year plan to deepen the bilateral relationship with a focus on trade and defense.
The "2030 Roadmap" elevates the relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership, as it also focuses on people-to-people connections, climate action and health. Indian officials said the declaration of an enhanced trade partnership was one of the "big-ticket" announcements of the summit. Both leaders further decided to quickly conclude discussions on a free trade agreement.
Though the two countries' strategic partnership stretches back more than 16 years, their move to take "a quantum leap" as they have termed it, is a sign of how their strategic interests have aligned more closely over the last year. China's increasingly assertive stance, shifting views on Beijing due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Brexit have all led to this convergence.
Increased cooperation in defense is a significant pillar of the road map, with an aim to develop a "free, open and secure Indo-Pacific region." A new strategic collaborative partnership was announced to "develop transformational defense and security capabilities to tackle common threats and the operational challenges of the future."
The British government announced a tilt toward the Indo-Pacific region in a major policy review in March, with the accompanying Defence Command Paper stating that the UK-India partnership is "a key pillar" of that strategy.
India "certainly would like to have as many friendly countries as possible" in the region, Harsh V. Pant, head of strategic studies program at Observer Research Foundation told Nikkei Asia, pointing out that New Delhi has already signed such agreements with Japan, France, the U.S., and Australia.
Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University, told Nikkei Asia: "If you look at the French and the British, particularly in the Indian Ocean context, both want India to be on their side,"
Jha added that France, which recently led a naval drill of Quad nations of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. in the Bay of Bengal, has "really outwitted" London in this regard. "The U.K. now just does not want to lose in terms of exercises and other things [involving the Indo-Pacific] so they want to jump into the bandwagon."
A maritime partnership in the western Indian Ocean will be facilitated through a new annual maritime dialogue, as well as strengthening information-sharing and operational coordination. This year, the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will lead a carrier strike group to the Indo-Pacific region, and will conduct joint training exercises with India's navy and air force for future cooperation in the western Indian Ocean.
"India and the U.K. are cooperating and will cooperate more in the Indo-Pacific," Sandeep Chakravorty, joint secretary in India's Ministry of External Affairs, told a media briefing
Aaditya Dave, research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, described the western Indian Ocean as a convergence of interests. "They both have economic interests in the region. It is an important channel of trade [and an] important channel of energy supply," he said.
The renewed interest from both sides to deepen strategic ties is largely due to a changed outlook in view of a more assertive China, from clashes on the Indian border to Beijing's clampdown on Hong Kong, among other issues.
Rather than China, whom the U.K. closely courted until just a few years ago, the Johnson government "would like greater engagement with like-minded countries like India and certainly greater coordination, if not cooperation, with the Quad," Pant said.
Meanwhile, the Enhanced Trade Partnership involves 1 billion pounds ($1.39 billion) of new trade and investment and will begin by lowering non-tariff barriers on U.K. exports of fruit and medical devices. Looking ahead, the two have committed to working on removing barriers for the services sector and mutually recognizing professional qualifications.
For the U.K., India poses a potential market of more than 1.3 billion people. London has signaled it wants to negotiate down the 150% Indian government tariff on Scotch whisky, for which India is the third-largest export market by volume, as well as the 125% tariff on automobiles.
The impact of the pandemic has also brought a different perspective to the shift away from China because "the economic boat was sinking anyway," according to Cleo Paskal, associate fellow and research lead on Chatham House's project on perceptions of strategic shifts in the Indo-Pacific from the points of view of the U.S., the U.K., India, Japan, Oceania and France.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, senior fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, considers this year to be an "unprecedented moment" for bilateral relations as the leaders are scheduled to meet three times, including the G-7 summit where London has invited India as a guest and the U.N. international climate conference, or COP26, hosted by the U.K.
Cooperation in health care is increasingly becoming a major focus as India tackles a severe second wave of COVID-19. The road map promises to work together to strengthen the resilience of global medical supply chains. India and the U.K. are also working to counter Chinese vaccine diplomacy in the region, with Oxford University, AstraZeneca and Serum Institute of India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, joining hands for production of the vital jabs.
The two sides also signed a pact on migration and mobility under which up to 3,000 young Indian professionals a year can avail of employment opportunities in the U.K., while New Delhi will take back Indian nationals staying illegally in Britain.
"It is our solemn duty that Indian nationals, who are undocumented or are in distress abroad or are not being given nationality or residence permits, have to be taken back," Chakravorty said. "We are against illegal migration [which] prejudices legal migration."