A recap of the key developments over the course of the last year that have brought UK-India relations to the point of a “quantum leap” in the new year.
“The deal is done!” A simple message put out on social media with a jubilant Boris Johnson thrusting his arms in the air marked the conclusion of one of the UK’s biggest political and economic conundrums dating back over decades – its relationship with the European Union (EU).
The last-minute Brexit agreement, struck way beyond the eleventh hour and after many had given up hope, marks the biggest free trade agreement (FTA) either side has ever clinched and a culmination of a particularly long-drawn divorce after Britain voted to leave the 27-member economic bloc four and half years ago.
The declared post-Brexit ambition of a truly Global Britain that is outward-looking towards all countries and free to trade on its own terms is now ready for take-off. And, it is no surprise that India is front of the queue of those countries, with the UK Prime Minister having already accepted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to attend Republic Day celebrations on January 26, 2021.
“I am absolutely delighted to be visiting India next year at the start of an exciting year for Global Britain, and look forward to delivering the quantum leap in our bilateral relationship that Prime Minister Modi and I have pledged to achieve,” said Boris Johnson, in reference to his first major bilateral visit since taking office as UK PM in December 2019 and the first since Britain’s exit from the EU.
“As a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, India is an increasingly indispensable partner for the United Kingdom as we work to boost jobs and growth, confront shared threats to our security and protect our planet,” he said.
It is this pivot towards the Indo-Pacific region that is set to define much of UK-India ties going forward, as India has made a clear foreign policy play for the region, not least as a counterbalance to the undemocratic forces in its neighbourhood.
“As it contemplates its global interests post-Brexit, the UK could and should play a significantly larger role in the Indo-Pacific Region. Specifically, it should aim to foster a community of free and independent nations committed to upholding peace, stability, prosperity, and access in the region,” said the influential think-tank Policy Exchange, in a recent analysis.
“The necessity of a coordinated regional and indeed global response to Chinese disinformation around Covid-19 is but one recent iteration of this principle. These are values shared by all independent nation states – not just democratic ones – which have a sovereign interest in being able to freely choose their trading and security partners,” it notes.
With Brexit now complete at the end of the transition period on December 31, one of the key stumbling blocks to closer UK-India relations may well be a thing of the past as the fair movement of Indian skills and talent had often been scuppered by the UK’s close alignment with the EU’s immigration rules.
Earlier this year, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel had unveiled the country’s post-Brexit points-based system with an avowed mission of making the visa regime fairer to all, rather than based on the country of origin.
She declared: “This government promised to end free movement, to take back control of our borders and to introduce a new points-based immigration system. Today, we have delivered on that promise.
“This simple, effective and flexible system will ensure employers can recruit the skilled workers they need, whilst also encouraging employers to train and invest in the UK’s workforce. We are also opening routes for those who have an exceptional talent or show exceptional promise in the fields of engineering, science, tech or culture.”
Alongside the work visa, a number of other routes are also now open for skilled professionals, including Global Talent Visa, for people who can show they have exceptional talent or exceptional promise in the fields of science, engineering, humanities, medicine, digital technology or arts and culture. Indian academic and professional organisations have widely welcomed these changes.
In the field of trade, despite a locked-down 2020, the UK and India managed to keep all communication channels open, including with the first-ever virtual India-UK Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO). It paved the way for an Enhanced Trade Partnership ahead of a much-anticipated full-fledged FTA, with what Indian Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal dubbed as “early harvest” deals at the heart of the strategy.
“Free trade agreement should be our goal, but we can do a PTA [preferential trade agreement] in an immediate future,” Goyal said, addressing a session of India Global Week 2020.
Since then, the two sides have conducted several rounds of talks and pinpointed the priority sectors of focus – food and drink, life sciences, information and communications technology (ICT), chemicals and services.
“We agreed on the key elements of a 10-year UK-India roadmap so that we can deliver a step change in ambition for the relationship between our two countries,” said Raab, setting the stage for Johnson to take things forward with his New Year visit.
With closer collaboration in areas as varied as defence, cyber security and vaccines already in the works, it would certainly seem that the “quantum leap” promised by the UK PM may just be the defining feature of UK-India ties in 2021.