The Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in London in April is expected to be the most ground-breaking summit for the bloc of 53 nations.
When Narendra Modi arrives for the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in London in April, he will be aware of the significance of his very presence at the summit. It will mark the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to CHOGM since Trinidad and Tobago in 2010, with Indian leaders having given summits in Perth, Colombo and Malta a miss.
This omission was no coincidence but indicative of the “benign neglect” the grouping has suffered from in the past, in the words of the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Y.K. Sinha.
“It is time to look at how the Commonwealth can be revived. It is important for the UK as it leaves the European Union (EU). The time has come to give the Commonwealth a particular focus and make it meaningful for member-states; not just an old boys' club to discuss shared legacies, we have to be forward-looking,” Sinha says, a perspective echoed in the preliminary programme of the summit itself.
Some of the base sessions to take place will be characterised around “The World We Want to See; The People We Want to Be” to deliberate on what the Commonwealth of the future should look like and what it should be doing. “The Future of Work: Skilling Tomorrow's Economy” will analyse the role of technology in creating opportunities for more inclusive employment, while sector-specific sessions will focus on new models of healthcare, steps to future-proof the maritime industry, the future of off-grid energy and sustainability of food production.
With Brexit in the UK and increasingly protectionist tendencies flowing out of the US, a redefining of trade practices is inevitable. CHOGM will grapple with some of the toughest questions around the issue of global trade, with a deeper look into whether cities are now more relevant than countries in driving trade and investment.
The scope for collaborations between the 53 countries - recently enhanced from 52 with the re-admittance of Gambia into the fold - is acknowledged as tremendous. India, as one of the world's fastest growing economies and with a massive youth dividend in terms of its population, has been pitched as the natural new leader within a more result-oriented Commonwealth. Intra-Commonwealth trade currently accounts for around $800 billion and, given the scale and scope of some of the economies within the bloc, the $1-trillion target set for 2020 is not overly ambitious.
Among the drivers of increased intra-Commonwealth trade and investment flows is a so-called “Commonwealth effect”, whereby trade between Commonwealth members is on average 20 per cent higher and trade costs are 19 per cent lower compared with trading between other partners. Therefore, the potential to hike intra-Commonwealth trade by hundreds of billions of dollars with regard to increased trading opportunities with developing country members is enormous.
The Commonwealth is widely dispersed across the globe, with member-countries having attained very different levels of economic development. This leads many observers to overlook Commonwealth members as natural trading partners. Most Commonwealth countries have also become active in their own natural regional trading clubs, which involve non-Commonwealth countries.
Yet, there are significant gains to be made from closer cooperation with and integration into the Commonwealth. Historical ties, long-established trading relations, familiar administrative and legal systems, the use of largely one language as the means of communicating with foreign partners and large and dynamic diasporic communities all tend to suggest the association can boost trade and investment flows and economic cooperation. This view has been endorsed during past CHOGM summits, held every two years, but has lacked sufficient vigour to pursue that goal.
As highlighted in a report by UK-based think tank Open Europe last year, Britain can make up for any export loss as it exits the EU by building on under-developed links with Commonwealth countries like India and making it a priority in its trade negotiations.
“There's little point making policy looking at just today's world. According to projections, Germany's GDP will grow by 14 per cent between 2017 and 2030. Over the same period India's is expected to more than double,” it pointed out.
“English is a lingua franca for India... The task of the government is to seize the opportunity of Brexit to draw fully on our comparative advantages, the English language, the common law system, the status of the UK judiciary and legal system, the UK's security, development and defence reach, our world-class universities, our innovation and science,” it added.
It is now an oft-repeated point that Britain is not yet free to negotiate any individual free trade agreements with countries of the Commonwealth, but that has not prevented it from wooing some of these attractive markets with the wider concept of “breaking down trade barriers”.
Against this backdrop, CHOGM offers Britain - as the host of this year's summit - the ideal playing field to lay out its wares for the rest of the world and convince all the players of its “Global Britain” vision.
Modi's visit for the summit will coincide with a bilateral meeting with his British counterpart, Theresa May, and be closely watched for the nature and value of the deals that are struck. While CHOGM provides the excuse for the latest round of bonhomie between the two countries, issues around mobility of Indian students and professionals are unlikely to be overlooked by an increasingly assertive India.
The message at the heart of the deliberations will have to be around a mutually beneficial arrangement, as part of which the UK and India can strike a partnership of equals to make a real impact in the development of some of the weaker economies of the Commonwealth.
But the fact that the Commonwealth must play a more active role in striking such partnerships for the future will be a point of agreement all round.