Defence and security ties will still be on the agenda as one of five ‘pillars’ of a 10-year elevated strategic partnership ‘road map’ till 2030 when Boris Johnson reschedules his meeting with Narendra Modi following the cancellation of his April 26 visit.
Defence and security ties would have been high on the list of discussions between British prime minister Boris Johnson and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. But with the official visit now cancelled there is speculation that the engagement between the two leaders will now be virtual. Had the visit materialised it would have been Johnson’s major international visit after Brexit and the first visit of a head of government to India during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is all part of the UK’s new foreign and security policy tilt towards the Indo-Pacific and an attempt by both countries to elevate their strategic partnership. But, urgent and ‘high-visible’ implementation of these enhanced ties is still required.
Elevated Strategic Partnership
The UK’s Integrated Review (IR), its first comprehensive (111-page) review of defence, security, development and foreign policy since the Cold War (titled ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’) (16 March 2021), recognised India as one of the three most important powers in the Indo-Pacific region, “the largest democracy in the world” and as an “international actor of growing importance”. The subsequent 69-page UK Defence Command Paper (DCP) (titled ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’) (22 March 2021) went further by describing India as “a key pillar” of its regional approach. This new perception of India within the broader geographical construct of the Indo-Pacific, rather than the traditional confines of South Asia, will be welcomed by New Delhi.
Although the UK and India have had a formal ‘strategic partnership’ for the past 17 years (since September 2004), its potential has remained largely unfulfilled. Despite long-standing and multi-faceted defence ties, there has been no visit of India’s Cabinet-level Defence Minister (Raksha Mantri) to the UK during this entire period (the last visit took place in January 2002 by George Fernandes).
Time to renew defence ties
The UK Defence Secretary last visited India in April 2017 for the first of what was expected to be an annual strategic dialogue. Although the UK-India Defence and International Security Partnership (DISP) of November 2015 highlighted an attempt to “intensify” cooperation; implementation has been slow. But, in an encouraging development, an MoU on Defence Technology and Industrial Capability Cooperation (DTICC) was signed in April 2019 to support defence technological and industrial partnerships.
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Recent rhetoric by prime ministers Modi and Johnson seeking a “quantum leap” in bilateral relations is partial acknowledgement of their unfulfilled potential. Indeed, the IR states that the UK’s objective is to “transform bilateral cooperation over the next ten years across the full range of bilateral shared interests”; no other country is accorded such an ambitious agenda. Defence and security ties have now wisely been ‘upgraded’ as one of five ‘pillars’ of a 10-year elevated strategic partnership ‘road map’ till 2030 (alongside trade and investment; climate; health; and migration and mobility).
Maritime security cooperation
Maritime affairs is set to be at the centre-stage of UK-India defence and security cooperation. The IR’s vision for this is “enhanced defence cooperation that brings a more secure Indian Ocean Region”; the DCP states that the UK “will establish a maritime partnership with India in support of mutual security objectives in the Indian Ocean”.
While the UK is expected to focus on the western Indian Ocean, where it holds long-standing historical and strategic leverages, India will concentrate on the entire Indian Ocean, where its concerns over Chinese naval presence and influence have been heightened by its border clash with China in June 2020. This has intensified India’s outreach to foreign naval forces, including the UK, as a potential ‘counter-weight’ to China in the Indian Ocean. But, in terms of the IR, the UK remains circumspect in this respect.
An India-UK Defence Logistics Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) has currently been postponed following the cancellation of Johnson's much awaited visit to India this month. This was expected to provide access to one another’s port facilities. This follows India’s similar logistics support agreements with the US, Australia, Japan, France, South Korea and Singapore. Joint naval exercises will need to be expanded, combined and made more complex; greater sea-time together is required and port calls should increase. With the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and its strike group beginning its first operational deployment next month, including through the Indian Ocean, a larger joint naval exercise will take place. Unfortunately, this will not be carrier-led from the Indian navy side; however, the previous naval exercise in August 2019 comprised only one warship each. There will also be greater efforts at joint maritime domain awareness, information sharing and joint counter-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden.
But, ‘imaginative’ thinking is also required to maximise these interactions. These could include trilateral naval exercises among India, UK and Australia, at a time when the UK is notable for its absence in any of India’s multiple trilateral naval exercises. And, this could possibly be expanded to ‘Quad-plus’ naval exercises with India, the US, Australia and Japan (as has taken place recently with Canada (January 2021) and France (April 2021).
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The UK and India need to take advantage of their privileged port access to Oman’s Duqm port, where the UK has built a joint logistics support base, for joint patrols and exercises, including with the US and Oman; and a UK, India, US trilateral naval exercise as well. There needs to be a ‘security-first’ Indian approach towards the strategically-located Diego Garcia/British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in the central Indian Ocean; which could jointly ensure the safety and security of shipping in the area, despite political controversy over sovereignty issues. Their full Membership of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the UK’s dialogue partnership of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), where India is a full Member, provide opportunities for cooperation on Indian Ocean matters.
But, the UK and India currently lack an effective mechanism for mutual consultation on the Indian Ocean; a 2015 proposal for a “new annual senior official dialogue on South Asia, including maritime issues” has not taken place. However, this can now be led by the new Directorate of India and the Indian Ocean of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the recently amalgamated and expanded Indian Ocean Region Division (along with the Gulf division) of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) in the Indian Prime Minister’s Office, whose mandate includes maritime security, should be involved. Such discussions would ideally need to be underpinned by a ‘track-1.5’ dialogue by think tanks of both countries on maritime security cooperation, which is currently lacking.
Defence, Cyber and Space
A new government-to-government framework to smoothen prospective arms supplies to India was recently finalised. British defence companies could seek to take advantage of recent defence industrial reforms in the Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) package, an intensification of the ‘Make in India’ reforms, including joint ventures through liberalised foreign defence investment regulations. Breakthroughs in the ‘co-creation’ of emerging defence technologies, including in communication (5G) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), need to be encouraged; alongside traditional areas such as gas turbines for combat aircraft. UK-India defence ‘start up’ collaboration should be operationalised through partnerships with defence research establishments and academic institutions.
The space domain needs to be prioritised. Although the bilateral Defence Consultative Group (DCG), led by their top defence officials, has taken place annually since 1995, the ongoing defence dialogues at the level of Minister of State need to be upgraded to the level of Cabinet Minister. The DISP also needs to be rejuvenated with the incorporation of a role for India’s recently-appointed Chief of Defence Staff.
The discreet successes of bilateral cyber security cooperation, following India’s ministerial participation in the London Cyberspace Conference in 2011 and the five-year ‘framework agreement’ of April 2018, need to be bolstered; the delayed bilateral cyber dialogue needs to be held. Both countries could deepen their security cooperation in the UN Security Council, where India is currently a non-permanent member for 2021 and 2022 and Chair of the UNSC Taliban sanctions committee for this calendar year.
Although a Joint Working Group on counter-terrorism has been in place with the UK since 2002, sustained and result-orientated cooperation will be key to a meaningful security partnership. The UK continues to call for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack to justice. In May 2019, the UK, along with the US and France, co-sponsored a resolution in the UN to successfully declare Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist”. And, the UK co-sponsored a motion at the inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in curbing terror financing; resulting in the continued ‘grey listing’ of Pakistan. In March 2021, the UK added Pakistan to a list of 21 high-risk countries in its ‘Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Regulations 2021’.
The last four-plus years of political wrangling over Brexit has meant the UK has arrived late in its tilt towards the Indo-Pacific and in seeking an elevation of its strategic partnership with India. Like other European countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, the UK needs to expand its Indo-Pacific ‘framework’ into a full-fledged policy while competition with India’s other strategic partners intensifies. This will have to take place amidst the UK’s other foreign policy priorities and overcoming domestic health and economic challenges. Continuing irritants in the bilateral UK-India relationship may complicate matters.
Therefore, the UK urgently needs to implement, with high visibility, key parts of the defence and security components of its 2030 road map. This needs to take place within the next 12-18 months, after which the political momentum in India will be lost in preparations for its next general elections in the summer of 2024. An important benchmark will be the visit of India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to the UK within the next 12 months; which would mark the first such visit in 20 years.