The visit to India on April 21-22 by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not an ordinary event for either side.
As far as India is concerned, the way its leadership has developed relations with each of the leading players in the current phase of the Great Game, one of which is the former metropole, does not contradict New Delhi’s overall (relatively) neutral positioning at the world’s gaming table. However, this positioning itself is subject to a number of serious challenges, with the main one stemming from the complex nature of relations with the second global power, which today is the People’s Republic of China.
For the UK, the visit was an important part of a (also general) tilt in foreign policy towards the Indo-Pacific region. As a consequence of leaving the EU, this “tilt” was already evident in the 2016 Japan trip of Theresa May, Boris Johnson’s predecessor as the UK prime minister. In March 2021, this trend was captured in a government concept paper with the ambitious title “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”.
In the course of the aforementioned tilt in British foreign policy, concrete measures have been taken, such as the conclusion of the Free Trade Agreement with Japan in the autumn of 2020 and the declaration a few months later of the UK’s intention to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It should be recalled that the CPTPP is a regional association (with Japan as informal leader) comprising 11 countries in Asia and the Americas. It was created (and has been operating since January 1, 2019) with the aim of gradually establishing a free trade area for member countries with a combined annual GDP of 13.5% of the world’s total. With the UK joining the CPTPP, this figure will increase by a further 3%.
The conclusion of the triple military-political alliance AUKUS in 2021, which also includes the US and Australia, fits into the same tilt in foreign policy of the UK. In the same year, media leaks followed about the possibility of London joining the Quad, which includes India (along with the same US, Japan and Australia).
Despite signs of life (four summits have already been held), this alliance is still not moving beyond stakeholder dialogue on some specific political and economic issues (e.g. related to the Covid-19 pandemic). In other words, there is still no prospect of it becoming a full-fledged political and military alliance. Although in the process of forming the Quad such a prospect was undoubtedly laid down by Washington, Tokyo and London. Their common interest in joining India to some political and military configuration of anti-Chinese (and anti-Russian) orientation is becoming increasingly evident.
“Courting” of India’s leadership in this direction, undertaken in recent months by officials of various ranks in the US, Japan and the UK, is becoming more and more insistent. Their trips to New Delhi have already turned into one continuous kaleidoscope in an attempt to shift India from its traditionally neutral position at the table of the “Great Game.” In the eyes of the (not at all holy) “trinity” outlined above, achieving this goal becomes particularly important as India’s role in the international arena grows dramatically.
An isolated but particularly relevant branch of this overall course that has emerged in recent months stems from India’s reluctance to join the sanctions imposed on Russia in connection with the Ukraine crisis. This is because India’s main objective (since independence until now) has been the country’s all-round development and its gradual transformation into one of the world’s leaders.
In this regard, attention was drawn to the statement made by Minister of Interior Amit Shah at a public event on April 24 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had set the goal of making India “the number one power by 2047”, i.e., the centenary of the formation of the Republic of India as a state. It seems clear enough that such a task is simply not achievable if the country today gets embroiled in international political wrangling on the side of one of the emerging factions.
Note the date on which Amit Shah announced these ambitious plans of the country’s leadership. It coincided with the date of the death of Kunwar Singh, that is, the officially revered hero of the 1857 anti-British rebellion. Incidentally, the figures of those anti-British forces who sided with the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II are no less respected in India today.
All these trends in Indian society’s current assessments of its recent past should have been taken into account by London in its preparations for Boris Johnson’s visit to India under discussion. For, in the author’s opinion, they are on the list of reasons why the efforts made by Western “salesmen” to encourage the Indian leadership to abandon its current position of neutrality in the Ukrainian crisis have so far failed.
In particular, India is unwilling to curtail its highly beneficial cooperation with Russia in the energy sector, which is particularly relevant in the current circumstances. A counter-message is being sent to all stubborn Western “visitors”: “Do you want to commit seppuku while fighting the “Russian aggressor”? It’s your right. But we should not be pushed to do the same, as India has other long-term plans.”
It is unlikely that they would have had anything similar to say to Boris Johnson, because, knowing the attitude of the Indian leadership to the Ukrainian issue, Johnson had stated in advance that he would not particularly raise it during the forthcoming talks. During the concluding press conference, Narendra Modi outlined his government’s established approach to this issue, with no mention of “Russian aggression” or the need for sanctions against Russia.
It should be noted, however, that the range of issues that the British Prime Minister discussed during talks with his Indian counterparts was certainly not limited to those stemming from New Delhi’s reluctance to join the anti-Russian sanctions. India and the UK have a wide range of opportunities to develop mutually beneficial relations.
As for India, in pursuit of the same long-term ambitions, its leadership is seeking every opportunity to technologically modernize its economy and attract foreign investment. The former metropole has both to a certain extent. Why not use it to solve its own problems?
The issue of acquiring and localizing production of the most advanced military technologies is of understandable relevance to India. And this topic featured prominently in Boris Johnson’s talks with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. The outcome of the meeting between them was articulated in the ten points that both prime ministers voiced during the final press conference mentioned above.
In assessing the overall attempt by Western countries to bring India into their own political camp in opposition to China and Russia, it can be stated that while there are some signs of this kind of shift in Indian foreign policy, it has not yet taken on any significant form. In this regard, one can agree with China’s Global Times that India continues to “balance between China and the West.”
This view was expressed on the occasion of the launch of the so-called Raisina Dialogue, supported by the Indian Foreign Ministry. This forum could be seen as a competitor to the famous Shangri-La Dialogue held annually by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies in terms of the nature of the issues discussed and the composition of the participants.
The guest of honor at another Raisina Dialogue was European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who will undoubtedly use the opportunity to pursue the “all-Western cause” vis-à-vis India.
In other words, the same thing that British Prime Minister Johnson had been doing in New Delhi just days earlier.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.