Partygate could act as spoiler ahead of UK-India free trade deal – Reuters

The fate of many initiatives announced during Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to the country will also depend on his own fate in the row

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By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Wed, May 4, 2022, 9:39 PM

After two cancellations due to the Covid-19 pandemic, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visits to India seemed catastrophic: the third planned visit (April 21-22) almost did not take place, this time due to disputes around of “Partygate”.

Hours before he left for India on April 20, Westminster was abuzz with claims the visit should be called off, as MPs were to debate a motion to send him back to the privileges committee for allegedly misleading the House Commons mistaken about parties in Downing Street (motion carried).

The visit eventually went ahead, but by all accounts he felt the parliamentary warmth from home more than the warmth in India during the visit. This was another example of an official visit dominated by context rather than text.

‘Partygate’ was the short-term context, but a slightly longer perspective reveals significant changes in the relationship between Britain and India in recent years, as experts believe the overall relationship is now marked by an asymmetry: India is now more important to the UK than the UK is to India, in which the UK chases India more than India chases the Kingdom -United. This was clear even before Johnson formed government after the 2019 election.

As Prime Minister, David Cameron made three official visits to India (in 2008, 2010 and 2013), while there was a gap of nearly a decade between Manmohan Singh’s visit in 2006 and that of Narendra Modi in 2015. The UK itself has changed due to Brexit. , which led India to renegotiate and review the whole relationship. Until Brexit, the UK presented itself as India’s gateway to Europe, which is no longer true. It is also true that Britain’s new strategic orientation towards the “Indo-Pacific” region with India as a key player would not have happened before Brexit.

On the one hand, economic considerations now dominate Britain’s relationship with India, currently geared towards the conclusion of a free trade agreement; it was a key aspect of Johnson’s visit. Four of the 26 chapters (trade areas) – described as “low hanging fruit” – have already been agreed, and the two prime ministers have set a Diwali deadline of October to complete negotiations in the other areas. Those close to the talks say India has never joined in such “swift” action on trade talks, even though the deadline seems too ambitious. A realistic outcome is an interim trade deal later this year. Trade negotiations usually last for years – the long negotiations with the European Union are still far from over. There has long been talk in London of the ‘potential’ to boost trade between the two countries, but the reality is that Britain’s trade with smaller countries is much bigger – Belgium (£45bn) or Ireland (£60bn) – than with India, which has greater trade engagement with Germany, France, Australia, China or Russia.

Britain no longer produces most of the goods India needs, as former business secretary Vince Cable admitted some time ago. The numbers are clear: total trade in goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and India was £21.5 billion in the four quarters to the end of Q3 2021; total UK exports to India were £7.7 billion, while total UK imports from

India was £13.8 billion. India is the UK’s 15th largest trading partner, accounting for 1.7% of total UK trade; UK FDI in India amounts to nearly £15 billion (0.9% of the UK’s total outward FDI stock), while UK FDI from India amount to £10.6 billion (0.6% of the UK’s total inward FDI stock). In May last year, Johnson and Modi set a target of doubling bilateral trade by 2030; an over-enthusiastic Britain hopes the FTA will help boost exports of goods that currently attract high tariffs in India (such as spirits, cars).

For India, its growing economic weight means that it can play a greater political role in the relationship; for example, on the issue of anti-Indian elements raising funds or organizing demonstrations in London and Great Britain, or seeking to facilitate the mobility of professionals. Johnson has already signaled during the visit that due to a severe shortage of skilled professionals in Britain, particularly in the IT sector, visa standards would be relaxed for Indians, mainly in the transfer visa route. business-to-business which is mainly used by Indian companies with offices. UK.

Besides setting the Diwali deadline for the FTA talks, one of the main outcomes of the visit was the political boost given to the hitherto underperforming area of ​​defense and security, including on “legacy issues” and areas where Britain has so far been unwilling to collaborate. Johnson announced support for new fighter jets designed and built in India, bringing the best of British aircraft-building know-how and meeting India’s demands for new technologies to identify and respond to threats in the Indian Ocean. Additionally, to support greater defense and security collaboration over the next decade, it announced an Open General Export License (OGEL) to India, reducing bureaucracy and shortening delivery times. for defense procurement – Britain’s first OGEL in the Indo-Pacific region, which is expected to take off despite some concerns in London about some dual-use items likely to reach Russia via India.

For the new defense and security agreement to succeed, a high degree of mutual trust is needed, as Rahul Roy-Choudhury and Simran Brookes of the International Institute for Strategic Studies put it: “Unsurprisingly, the word trust appears twice in the joint declaration. ; in defense and security as well as in commercial sections. But trust can be a double-edged sword, with different perspectives provoking equally deep mistrust… This is important when the two countries have “agreed to deepen cooperation, including resolving legacy issues quickly… as partners of confidence “. These remain complex and contentious issues linked in large part to issues in the UK’s defense supply chain. Previous discussions of this have been characterized as akin to making a “jalebi” that spins “in circles”.

There’s naturally a lot going on between Britain and India that rarely makes the headlines, thanks to their long history and many levels of commitment (Enoch Powell once called the relationship “a shared hallucination “).

The fate of the many initiatives announced during the visit – gushing by Johnson, reflecting another level of asymmetry – will also depend on his own fate in the Partygate line, but those with longer memories believe that observing the former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson remains as true today as when it was created in 1962, that “Britain has lost an empire but has yet to find a role”.

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