Just as the UK’s major post-Brexit Integrated Review of foreign policy priorities is set to confirm a definitive focus on the Indo-Pacific region, Foreign Office minister Tariq Ahmad arrives in India to lay the groundwork for a UK-India Enhanced Trade Partnership.
All indications are that the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt will now be clearly spelt out when the much-anticipated Integrated Review of its foreign policy, defence and international development goals is released next week. The review, launched as a realignment of priorities after the UK left the European Union (EU) in January, is widely expected to firmly define what such a tilt would mean – with India expected to form a centrepiece for Britain’s post-Brexit alliance ambitions. An Enhanced Trade Partnership is expected to fire the starting shot for a marathon towards a free trade agreement (FTA) in the future, with policy and strategic tie-ups across a wide range of sectors from defence and security to healthcare, life sciences and climate change on the anvil.
Lord Tariq Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), confirmed that such a tilt is not being over-stated though the details would be spelt out only once the Integrated Review is formally released by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Lord Ahmad said: “It can be taken as read, in as much as government policy is concerned, there is a very strong belief and focus on the Indo-Pacific tilt; and it’s right we do so. When you look at the countries within that part of the region, India is foremost in our minds.
“And, just going by actions, there has been a transformational level of engagement at very senior levels, including visits to India.”
There certainly have been a flurry of high-profile visits to India in recent months, including Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, Cabinet minister for the UN COP26 Summit Alok Sharma and now Ahmad is heading to India for a five-day, five-city tour between March 15 and 19.
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The agenda for all these visits is quite apparent: to lay the groundwork for Boris Johnson’s much-anticipated visit in the coming weeks to sign off on an Enhanced Trade Partnership with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the mechanism to eventually pave the way for a full-fledged UK-India FTA. This will be the delayed visit which was to take place in January, with Johnson as the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade, but had to be cancelled amid a new UK variant of coronavirus causing further pandemic havoc. It has since been confirmed that Johnson would most definitely be making up for that visit ahead of the Indian Prime Minister’s scheduled visit for the G7 summit hosted by the UK in Cornwall in June, where India has been invited as a guest country.
Lord Ahmad said: “I have quite an intensive and full programme in India. I will be arriving in Delhi, where I have a full range of ministerial meetings, after which I will go to Chandigarh and meeting with various regional leaders as well as community meetings, then to Chennai and on to Hyderabad and then returning from Mumbai, where there will be some meetings on the trade side.
“The intense programme underlines the importance of our strong relationship with India. It follows on from our ongoing senior-level engagement at ministerial level. We look forward to the Prime Minister's [Johnson] visit in advance of Prime Minister Modi visiting as part of the G7.”
The minister also reiterated the “strong collaboration” between the UK and India in together responding to global challenges, including through the UN-led COVAX facility for accessible Covid-19 vaccine supplies to more vulnerable countries in the world.
He said: “The role that India has played as the pharmacy of the world has been phenomenal. We've been extremely collaborative in our approach to this and publicly acknowledged the role India played in unlocking certain other pharmaceuticals, including the delivery of paracetamol.
“We work together with India on securing domestic supplies but that hasn't taken away of our commitment through the Gavi [Vaccine Alliance] to the COVAX facility. India, through the likes of the Serum Institute of India, are absolutely integrated to ensuring the supply of that.”
It recently emerged that a shipment of 10 million doses of Covishield, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine being produced by the Serum Institute of India in Pune, will be supplied to the UK to meet domestic requirements. The minister stressed that this did not impact neither the UK’s nor India’s commitment to ensuring supply channels to countries across Africa and other regions.
“Across Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, we have seen the deliveries of the batches of those vaccines. There is understandable concern over the issue of supply of vaccines, because it has impacted everyone everywhere; but the positive to take from this is that the close collaboration between the UK and India has led us here – here we are 12 months on, against all the odds we are seeing extensive deliveries because of this close collaboration on vaccines across the globe.”