UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has laid the foundations for Prime Minister Boris Johnson's 2021 visit to India with an agreement on the key elements of a time-bound plan for a step change in the bilateral relationship.
It is no coincidence that Boris Johnson has chosen India as not only his first major bilateral visit since taking charge as the UK Prime Minister last year but also the first since Britain′s exit from the European Union (EU). Even as the negotiations over a post-Brexit trade agreement count down at an excruciating pace to their December 31 deadline, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab flew down to India this week for a series of high-level talks, with his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar as well as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. https://www.youtube.com/watch v=01xZyDV6eQU While in India, he confirmed that Johnson has accepted Modi's invitation and will be the Guest of Honour at the Republic Day parade 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,” declared Johnson in a statement from Downing Street in London soon after. The message has been spelt out clearly - that India will be at the heart of Global Britain once the UK has formally left the 27-member economic bloc from January 1, 2021, with or without a deal.
Trade and investment, defence and security, health and climate change have been identified as the priority areas of focus, with Raab charged with laying the groundwork for Johnson's self-proclaimed “quantum leap” in the bilateral relations.
Raab said: “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.
“We look forward to taking this forward in 2021 - including through the UK's Presidency of the G7 and also our Presidency of the UN Climate Change Conference, and as we see and welcome India return to the UN Security Council.”
Johnson, in turn, has invited Modi to attend the G7 Summit as one of three guest nations alongside South Korea and Australia - with a focus on his declared ambition to work with a group of “like-minded democracies” to advance shared interests and tackle common challenges.
Therefore, Raab's roadmap setting a 2030 vision is seen as intended to unleash a new era in the UK-India relationship. Ahead of a future Free Trade Agreement (FTA), an “Enhanced Trade Partnership” is expected to boost bilateral trade and investment, which already stands at almost £24 billion and grew by 11 per cent in the last financial year, with UK-India investments supporting over half a million jobs in each other's economies.
“Together we can deliver an Enhanced Trade Partnership next year, combine our cyber security expertise to protect our citizens and join forces to protect global health and promote things like vaccine production,” declared Raab.
One of the central features to come out of Raab's visit has been the UK's stated focus on the Indo-Pacific region, something India has been keen to prioritise as a counterbalance to China as well as an alliance of strong democracies.
“A closer relationship with India, and the wider Indo-Pacific region, is really one of the very highest policy priorities for the UK government,” Raab stated.
Dr Jaishankar made a point to acknowledge this decisive policy commitment, with his statement at the end of their one-on-one talks: “Welcomed UK's Indo-Pacific tilt. Will cooperate closely on global issues and in multilateral organisations.”
According to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), as a major economic and diplomatic power in the Indo-Pacific, closer UK-India economic, security and scientific ties will boost growth and create jobs for Britons and Indians and bring together both countries' expertise as science superpowers to advance the frontiers of medicine and research. An immediate win has been the UK Global Tariff schedule, which could reduce tariffs on Indian exports by up to £40 million per year from January 1, 2021 - when Brexit comes into effect.
“Prime Minister Modi has been very clear this is a real priority for India. We recognise India's global leadership in this area, through the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. As hosts of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow next year, we will also be playing a leading role ourselves. We want to see an ambitious outcome which really helps to shift the dial on climate change,” said Raab, in reference to one of the focal points of his visit.
The minister welcomed the “real strides” made by India on renewable energy and pledged to keep building on the UK-India partnership internationally in this area.
Since the recent co-hosting for the virtual Climate Ambition Summit, the UK has been keen to keep building momentum for the COP26 summit in Glasgow next year, dubbing it a crucial moment for the world to unite to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees. The FCDO said that Raab would use his meeting with Modi to thank him for his personal leadership on the issue, with India having quadrupled its wind and solar capacity in the last decade.
The Covid-19 pandemic and its far-reaching adverse impact on the global economy was also expectedly at the heart of Raab's Indian mission, something he singled out as the “proudest example” of the UK-India partnership.
He said: “Oxford University, AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute India have been working closely together. And the Institute is now planning to produce one billion doses of the Oxford vaccine by the end of next year, many of which will be destined for low and middle income countries.
“That is the UK and India working together to transform people's lives around the world. We want to take advantage of these vaccines, not only for our own people but to make sure the most vulnerable and poorest countries around the world get equitable distribution and access.
“In these areas, and many others, our partnership can be a force for good in the world at large.”
In the UK PM's words, the stage is now set for 2021 to be the year to “deepen and strengthen the UK-India relationship”. All the pieces for the jigsaw seem to be in place, with officials holding regular talks to review barriers to trade and work on striking a series of preferential agreements in the lead up to the much-anticipated FTA.
And, what better moment for Johnson and Modi to take that decisive leap than the 72nd anniversary of the day celebrating India's birth as a Republic.