The British Prime Minister used his Republic Day message to reiterate his commitment towards a significant boost to the UK-India relationship, with a free trade agreement (FTA) being the ultimate goal on both sides.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson would have been in New Delhi to mark India’s 72nd Republic Day on January 26 as a Guest of Honour had the pandemic and a deadlier new variant of coronavirus not intervened to scupper the plans. The visit was poised to clinch the so-called Enhanced Trade Partnership, seen as precursor to a more wide-ranging free trade agreement (FTA) as part of a 10-year roadmap unveiled by UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab during his India visit in December 2020.
“I was hugely looking forward to joining you for this important occasion at the kind invitation of my friend Prime Minister Modi, alas our common struggle against Covid has kept me in London,” said Johnson, resorting to a video message instead to celebrate the birth of the “extraordinary Constitution” that established India “as the biggest sovereign democracy in the world”.
“As I speak, our two countries are working side-by-side to develop, produce and distribute vaccines that will help to free humanity from the pandemic. And thanks to the combined efforts of Britain, India and many other nations, we are on the road to success against Covid. So, I look forward to visiting India later this year, strengthening our friendship, and striving for the quantum leap in our relationship that Prime Minister Modi and I have both pledged to achieve,” he said.
Lord Tariq Ahmad, who has been instrumental on the British side in discussions around the removal of barriers to trade as Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), reiterated the plans for an Enhanced Trade Partnership were on course to pave the way for a positive free FTA with India in future.
“The ultimate goal is an FTA and the first steps in that direction are expected to form part of the initiatives that will be unveiled when the Prime Minister [Boris Johnson] visits India later this year,” the minister reflects.
The ambition to pull off a “real professional partnership” that covers smoother movement of skilled professionals and students between the two countries is pegged as being at the heart of a post-Brexit enhanced partnership with India.
According to latest FCDO data, UK-India bilateral trade increased by over 11 per cent to nearly £24 billion and the UK was the largest European market for India’s goods exports in the 2019-20 financial year. The UK is also the second fastest-growing G20 investor in India over the last 10 years.
“India is a strategic partner and we look forward to working closer together within the Commonwealth as we look towards Kigali,” said Lord Ahmad, in reference to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) scheduled in Rwanda in June.
Besides, with India invited as a guest nation to the UK-led G7 summit in Cornwall in June, there are quite a few avenues open to both sides this year to push ahead with bilateral and multilateral goals.
Meanwhile, it is the close UK-India collaboration in the fight against a common enemy in the form of Covid-19 that has been the focal point of the strength of the bilateral relationship in recent months.
The UK has committed £548 million to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC), which aims to provide at least 1 billion doses of vaccines for high-risk populations in 80 low and lower middle-income countries and 12 eligible upper-middle income countries in 2021, including India. The Serum Institute of India (SII) will be one of the main suppliers of COVAX AMC, besides providing a significant proportion of India’s domestic supply. The current COVAX portfolio includes 170 million AstraZeneca doses and 200 million doses of AstraZeneca or Novavax from the SII, with an option of up to 900 million doses agreed.
“India, as the pharmacy of the world, is a key composite to both our countries’ commitment to the equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines around the world, through the COVAX facility. This has been a key area of collaboration, including between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India,” notes Lord Ahmad.
And, with Britain edging towards a definitive Indo-Pacific tilt as part of its stated Global Britain ambitions, UK-India cooperation across a wide range of sectors does look poised for that “quantum leap” which has been the buzz word for Boris Johnson this year.