Industry leaders and regional experts are confident that an enhanced UK-India trade partnership will not be derailed by a Covid-enforced cancellation of the UK PM’s visit to New Delhi.
"Of course it will be frustrating, but we’ll try and replicate as much as we can remotely, and then look forward to doing it in person as and when circumstances allow, and hopefully before the COP (climate) summit in November, and hopefully we’ll get Narendra Modi over for the G7 in June," said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, of his cancelled visit to New Delhi – which was to take place on April 26.
The visit will now take on a virtual form, with business and industry leaders accepting it as the right move given the Covid-19 pandemic situation in India. However, the overwhelming view is also that it is unlikely to affect the momentum behind an enhanced UK-India trade partnership.
The two leaders are now expected to connect virtually to sign off a much-anticipated ‘Roadmap 2030’ as a blueprint for the next decade, on the road to achieving a free trade agreement (FTA) in future.
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Lord Karan Bilimoria, president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said the vision would be to quadruple bilateral trade during that period and that should not be affected by the discussions being conducted virtually instead.
He said: “Although it is disappointing, the mutual decision to postpone the PM’s visit to India is the right one.
“We must now look to maintain momentum; businesses are still hopeful that an enhanced trade deal with India is on the horizon – an ambitious agreement that bolsters our two-way trading relationship across many sectors and is forecast to quadruple bilateral trade to £100 billion by 2030.
“This is a key moment for a transformed UK-India relationship, boosting UK-India trade to new heights.”
The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), which had planned a maiden India-UK Health Summit to be attended by both Prime Ministers during the visit, described the visit cancellation as “understandable” on an equally optimistic note.
FICCI President Uday Shankar said: “FICCI, with support from the government of India and UK, had planned the maiden India-UK Health Summit with august presence of PM Modi and PM Johnson. We are certain the summit would be held once the situation gets better.
“We are happy to note that the two Prime Ministers have agreed to a virtual meeting to launch their ambitious plans for the India-UK partnership. We look forward to the announcement of the Enhanced Trade Partnership and the 10-year roadmap for the India-UK bilateral trade and investment.
“FICCI’s recent report ‘Ascent: The New Horizon of Trade Relations’ highlighted that with a robust economic foundation based on job creation and shared prosperity, trade and investment between the UK and India has the potential to increase to £50 billion. The announcement of the Enhanced Trade Partnership will ensure we achieve this shared vision of our leaders.”
The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) was equally upbeat about the bilateral relationship.
Jim Bligh, Chair of the CII UK-India Business Forum, said: “Given the prevailing Covid situation in India it is only right that Prime Minister Johnson’s visit has been postponed.
“Business knows that the hard work of negotiating an enhanced trade partnership is going on regardless, and we look forward to that important document being signed. As the UK and India embark on an ambitious new trading relationship, there will be many more opportunities for both nations’ leaders to meet in safer times.”
London-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) pointed to the recently released Integrated Review by the British government and concluded that the last-minute change of travel plans would not have an impact on that base strategy.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia at IISS, said: “Disappointing that the visit has been cancelled. But, it does not disrupt the UK’s new foreign and security post-Brexit priority given to India as a ‘key pillar’ of the UK’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific. An enhanced trade partnership agreement can still take place.
“The finalisation of the bilateral UK-India Roadmap 2030 – expected at the virtual summit next Monday - prioritises defence and security ties as one of five key subjects for the transformation of bilateral relations. Bilateral maritime security cooperation will be a highlight of these interactions.
“Notwithstanding the cancellation of the visit, both countries need to begin implementation of their 2030 Roadmap as early as possible and in a highy-visibility manner to maximise impact.”
The 'Roadmap 2030' plan for UK-India ties is aimed at a revitalised and dynamic connect between people; re-energised trade, investment and technological collaboration; enhanced defence and security cooperation and closer engagement on regional issues – including the Indian Ocean Region and the Indo-Pacific.