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HERO IR Essay 1800x500 ;

The Integrated Review's Indo-Pacific strategy: the centrality of UK-India relations.

This essay was first published in July 2021, in the first volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: A Strategy Fit for the 2020s?

The success of Britain’s Indo-Pacific tilt will not be decided by geo-strategic considerations such as membership of the Quad or the deployment of the Royal Navy in Asian waters. Instead it will stand or fall on bilateral relations with India where a transformation is long overdue. Although the Johnson-Modi connection offers real promise there remain numerous irritants. Britain’s close relations with Pakistan; India’s innate protectionism, the complexities of diaspora politics, differing views on terrorism and Kashmir, Modi’s attitude towards minorities, and the ever-present colonial legacy all threaten to trip up both the relationship and the wider ambition.


The Integrated Review (IR) ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’ published in March 2021 makes much of an intended British tilt towards the ‘Indo-Pacific’. The term is mentioned 32 times. The key idea is that global economic power has moved to Asia and that ‘global Britain’ post-Brexit is in need of new markets and enhanced relationships in Asia. There is also a security element due to “China’s military modernisation and growing international assertiveness within the Indo-Pacific region” (p.29).

As one reads the IR the centrality of UK’s relationship with India becomes increasingly apparent – Tim Willasey-Wilsey

as the one country in Asia of comparable size to China and with an economy set to become the third largest in the world by 2030. India is mentioned 17 times. Only China receives more references with 27. By contrast France gets 11, Germany 7, Japan 5, Australia 6, Russia 14 and the United States a mere 9.


In the IR India straddles two separate issues. One is India’s bilateral role in satisfying the UK’s national objective of finding new markets and allies in the wake of Brexit. The other is the multilateral realignment of global power and the place of India and Britain in addressing the threat from China.


The second of these issues takes us directly to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (better known as the Quad). In its modern incarnation the term Indo-Pacific dates from 2007 when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used the term in a fascinating speech entitled ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ which, without mentioning China once, evoked an alliance between Japan and India which would also extend to Australia and the United States. The Quad was initialled by the leaders of India, Japan, Australia and the United States that same year. So the concepts of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad are joined at the hip if not quite synonymous.


The United States, Australia and Japan are fully committed to developing the Quad into a strategic alliance but India’s position is more nuanced. During the stand-off against China in the Himalayas in 2020 the Quad looked increasingly important to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national security team. However Modi himself has a long history of engagement with China dating back to his days as Chief Minister of Gujerat. Modi’s overriding priority is the economic development of India and that means the avoidance of a breakdown with China. His Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar speaks of China as a problem to be ‘managed’. In his book ‘The India Way; Strategies for an uncertain world’ he writes of India no longer being non-aligned but multi-aligned. His key message is “there will be convergence with many but congruence with none”. So

we can expect India to stand in the way of the Quad becoming a NATO-style military alliance against China.– Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Britain may wish to join the Quad, where it will feel instantly comfortable with its ‘Five Eyes’ partners US and Australia. Yet the IR does not mention the Quad at all, presumably for fear of needlessly upsetting China. In fact the only overtly military reference is the visit to the Indo-Pacific by Britain’s new aircraft carrier and task force. This one-off deployment is welcomed by Quad members but the future UK permanent naval presence in the Gulf and in Singapore will be a more telling long-term statement of intent.

Even the putative presence of two frigates, four minesweepers and a support tanker in the region will test the UK’s already stretched defence budget.– Tim Willasey-Wilsey

So on the wider geo-strategic issue of the Indo-Pacific Britain will have to balance the subtly differing attitudes of the four Quad members. Although Britain has become increasingly critical of China since the days of the Cameron government’s ‘golden era’ British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recognises the importance of retaining sound commercial connections with Beijing with carefully managed diplomatic and political engagement. In that sense London’s interests regarding China are closely aligned to those of New Delhi.


Turning now to Britain’s bilateral engagement with India the two chunky paragraphs on UK-India relations on page 62 of the IR brim with ambition ranging from cultural links, trade, research, investment, climate change, clean energy to global health all underpinned “by our largest single country diplomatic network anywhere in the world, with more than 800 staff spread across eleven posts”.


This ambition is based on some promising foundations. There has been positive recent dialogue in the fields of space, cyber security, vaccines, water quality and the environment. Indeed there is greater potential in the UK-India relationship today than at any time since independence in 1947. This is largely because Johnson and Modi have established a relationship based on more than their shared right-wing populist politics. In spite of being obliged to cancel his attendance at New Delhi’s Republic Day parade in January 2021 and again in April 2021 due to Covid-19 Johnson’s positive rapport with Modi has survived. In May British Trade Secretary Liz Truss signed the UK-India Enhanced Trade Partnership``` with Modi’s Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and announced that negotiations towards a free trade agreement would begin in the Autumn with the aim of doubling trade between the two countries by 2030.


This is more progress than has been made for many years. Indeed it has long been a source of frustration in Whitehall that efforts to befriend India have never been completely fulfilled. Between 1947 and 1991 India’s close ties with the Soviet Union were a constant irritant a were Britain’s connections to Pakistan, particularly during the war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. The Suez invasion of 1956 infuriated India and the Indian nuclear explosions in 1974 and 1998 riled London. The close personal and cultural ties between the two countries were often frustrated by mutual irritation caused by events. This comes across clearly in Margaret Thatcher’s description of her visit to India in April 1981. She evidently liked and admired Indira Gandhi but their relationship was unable to overcome their political differences and India’s Moscow-leaning nonalignment.2


The collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic reforms of Narasimha Rao’s government in 1991 presented a new opportunity for Whitehall to transform relations. Much good bilateral work was done but successive UK High Commissioners have privately expressed frustration that no breakthrough was made. Often it was happenstance (such as the nuclear tests) which obstructed progress but a frequent complaint was that British governments had not only failed to ‘dehyphenate’ India from Pakistan but actually tended to devote more policy and ministerial bandwidth to the Islamic Republic.


A common Indian narrative is that Britain has always favoured Pakistan just as it preferred the pre-independence Muslim League over the Congress Party. The prominent Indian commentator and former diplomat Tilak Devasher writes of “the role of Britain in propping up the Muslim League…in order to obstruct the march of the Congress towards independence”. After 1947 Pakistan became an important listening post for Britain and the West as it looked northwards into Soviet Central Asia. After 1979 Pakistan became the base for efforts to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and post 2001 the fulcrum for the international attempts to destroy Al Qa’ida.


And yet, at the same time, Pakistani support for the Taliban contributed towards Britain’s humiliating failure in Helmand province from 2006 to 2014. Meanwhile London’s persistent efforts to persuade Pakistan to clamp down on terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba bore little fruit and were viewed with barely-concealed scepticism in New Delhi.

Indian strategists feel that the UK has been repeatedly hoodwinked by Islamabad – Tim Willasey-Wilsey

and particularly by the Pakistani military establishment.


The IR makes plain that Britain will continue its close connection to Pakistan. “We have close historical links with Pakistan and will continue to develop a strong, modern relationship focused on security, stability and prosperity. We will continue to support stability in Afghanistan, as part of a wider coalition” (p.62). The relationship with Afghanistan will be hard to sustain following the Biden administration’s decision (made after the IR was released) to leave. This exit will make UK’s relationship with Pakistan even more important as will London’s reluctance to allow China to become the sole (as opposed to prime) ally of Islamabad. Furthermore the large Pakistani diaspora in UK makes close relations essential. This will present a constant irritant between London and New Delhi.


That same Pakistani diaspora will ensure that the running sore of the Kashmir dispute is constantly raised in the UK Parliament. Most people of Pakistani origin in the UK come from the Mirpur area in Pakistan Held Kashmir (PHK) and familial ties ensure that events such as India’s revocation of Article 370 in August 2019 are never far from the Westminster agenda.


Another source of annoyance is the UK’s tendency to view Counter Terrorism through a domestic lens, focussing primarily on threats against the UK mainland. To New Delhi this smacks of an unwillingness to push Pakistan hard enough against groups which are hostile to India’s role in Kashmir such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group responsible for the Pulwama attack which so nearly led to an India-Pakistan war in 2019. Twice in recent years (after the terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and on Mumbai in 2008) the UK has urged India to hold back from military retaliation against Pakistan but has then failed to deliver on attempts to get Pakistan to end all support for Kashmiri jihadist groups.


Mrs Thatcher’s complaint about the innate socialism of India’s Congress Party leaders changed when the BJP came to power and particularly with the arrival of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in 2014. In a right wing populist famously enthusiastic about business David Cameron’s Coalition government sensed an opportunity. The British High Commissioner took the gamble of going to see Modi in Gujerat before the election at a time when the latter was still being vilified for communal violence which had resulted in numerous Muslim fatalities. However the ploy did not pay off and the Cameron administration was later criticised for its tactical focus on trade deals rather than engaging in the sort of long-term diplomacy which the French, Germans and Japanese have successfully pursued over many decades. When Modi selected the future fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force he chose the French Rafale over the Typhoon which Cameron had championed.


Meanwhile Cameron’s Home Secretary was seen as inflicting collateral damage on relations by her inflexible position on Indian student visas; insisting that they must be counted in overall immigration figures rather than as a separate category. Theresa May carried this policy into her short tenure as Prime Minister during which uncertainty over Brexit further hindered a breakthrough in relations.


It was only with the election of Boris Johnson that the prospects for UK-India relations suddenly improved. Johnson has long been interested in India and his brother Jo was South Asia correspondent for the Financial Times based in New Delhi from 2005 to 2008. The new British government not only had a Chancellor of the Exchequer of Indian origin but, in Priti Patel, a Home Secretary who was only too willing to reverse Mrs May’s policies and enable more Indian students to access British Universities.


Underlying these developments was a political transformation which could have fundamental implications for relations. The Indian diaspora in the UK which numbers some 1.5 million has traditionally voted for the Labour Party which was seen as more welcoming to immigrants. Partly due to Brexit and to the innate entrepreneurship of many Indians in UK, but also because of the enthusiasm for Modi’s brand of nationalist politics, the diaspora has increasingly begun to vote Conservative. This began in 2015 and grew in both 2017 and 2019.


The benefits of this development are obvious for Johnson’s relations with Modi but they also conceal real dangers. The large Pakistani diaspora in UK still votes Labour which is now, more than ever, seen to favour Muslims who look askance at the Tory Party’s willingness to overlook Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies, his increasing intolerance of minorities and dissent and his removal of the rights of Kashmiris in India’s only majority-Muslim state. The problem here could not only be a threat to communal relations within some British cities but also that

UK-India relations could be at the mercy of whichever political party occupies No 10 Downing Street.– Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Even with the Tories in power in Westminster the Modi government is already becoming increasingly vexed by activities in London. At an event hosted by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in March 2021 a speaker said that a debate in the UK Parliament about recent Indian farm protests had been ‘unacceptable’4. In a separate webinar Foreign Minister Jaishankar elliptically referred to the UK press coverage being ‘part of a propaganda aim with a deeper agenda’. Indian irritation reached its height during violent protests over Kashmir outside the Indian High Commission in London in 2019 and at what was viewed as passive policing. Any Westminster government has very limited control over Parliamentary and press freedoms and the policing of demonstrations.


At the IISS event another Indian participant argued that India should be admitted to the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership. The Five Eyes (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) traces its roots back to the Second World War and has become a uniquely successful relationship based on shared strategic interests and a common language and heritage. The chances of India being admitted are vanishingly small but to Indians it will be tempting to see exclusion as political rejection. Similar frustration is felt over the repeated failure of the US, UK, France and Russia to obtain a permanent seat for India on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in the face of persistent Chinese opposition.


A British Council report ‘India and the UK: A 2050 Vision’ outlines the considerable opportunities presented by the shared use of the English language. It goes on to describe the ‘legacy of the colonial era’ as ‘complex’. Ever since 1947 the shadow of both the East India Company and the Raj has hung over UK-India relations and the polemics of Shashi Tharoor have recently added fuel to the debate. The

colonial scars are deeper than most British people realise – Tim Willasey-Wilsey

and Indians are understandably sensitive to a sometimes patronising tone from London.


The next step for UK-India relations will be the discussions on a free trade deal. This may well be where the difference between potential and reality begins to bite. In spite of the reforms of Manmohan Singh which began to open up the Indian economy in the 1990s and the arrival of the business-friendly Modi in 2014 the fact remains that India is intensely protectionist and the bureaucracy is “sometimes sclerotic if not obstructionist” with “a vast array of vested interests”. Modi’s ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atmar Nirbhar Bharat’ (Self Reliance) policies would have the effect of reducing foreign imports. Meanwhile Britain’s position as a trading partner has slipped from second place in 1998 to 18th in 2019.


In a similar vein Britain’s desire to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CP-TTP) contrasts with India’s apparent reluctance to become a member of the free-trade area.


If Britain makes no significant commercial breakthrough with India in the 2020s it will doubtless try and compensate elsewhere in the Asia Pacific but the IR’s specific Indo- Pacific ambition will look somewhat threadbare. Any such failure will be less at the geostrategic level than because Britain has been unable, yet again, to navigate the numerous and often neuralgic complexities of its relationship with India.


Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London and a former senior British diplomat. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent those of any institution.

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Tim Willasey-Wilsey

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