When David Cameron and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took over the reins of government in London in May 2010, Britain was going through a period of great uncertainty and change. Involvement in two wars had cost the country over $30 billion and 500 lives, while the impact of the global economic slump on Britain challenged the notion that it could continue to “punch above its weight” in world affairs, even as an ally of the United States. The centre of power was gradually, but conspicuously, shifting eastward. Recognising these realities, Mr Cameron’s government set about crafting “a distinctive British foreign policy” for his coalition government: a policy best articulated by William Hague, the British foreign secretary, as one that recognised as this shift in power from the West to the East and the emergence of other players through the G20.
It is a theme that Mr Cameron has taken to heart. Barely eight weeks after taking office, he embarked on a tour of Asia. His first stop was in Turkey, a country in the midst of a strategic reorientation (not perhaps, unlike his own), where he pledged to support Ankara’s quest for EU membership. His next stop was India. Arriving in Bangalore — not New Delhi — Mr Cameron brought an entourage of ministers, businessmen and academics. Speaking at the headquarters of Infosys Technologies, the British prime minister demanded Pakistan abjure terrorism against India and not “look both ways” on the issue.
It was a departure from a narrative long favoured by Western leaders, and one that might pay dividends for Britain as it seeks a stronger partnership with India. That Mr Cameron appeared unapologetic about his comments even when he
welcomed the Pakistani president to 10 Downing Street indicated that he wasn’t hedging, as so many Western leaders are given to, on the issue of terrorism in India. Indeed, Mr Cameron’s unambiguous stance on the issue may help in easing the coolness in bilateral ties, not least after the damage caused by David Miliband’s gratuitousness and sanctimony in January 2009.
Faced with government debt and high unemployment rates at home, Mr Cameron will do what he must to revive his country from economic slump. In this regard, it is easy to dismiss his overtures to India as being opportunistic, self-serving or myopic. And notwithstanding the trade delegation that he brought to India, bilateral trade between the two countries has levelled off, in absolute terms at about $11 billion (2008-2009). In terms of the overall contribution to India’s economy, Britain has lost ground to other countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. There is no doubt that bilateral trade between the two counties will continue to amble along. But if Mr Cameron wishes to truly forge the bonds of an “enhanced relationship” with India, both countries will need to engage on issues of strategic importance to the world and to each other. Three issues stand out: security, energy and climate change.
The first pertains to what C Raja Mohan calls “keeping the global commons open and secure for all.” The security and safety of vital commodities in transit is critical to any economy; more so to one growing at such a rapid pace as India’s. The growth of India and China, and the Southeast Asian economies will increase competition for resources and further underscore the vitality of Indian Ocean trade routes to their economic growth. Today, India is already engaged with like-minded countries such the United States in securing these high traffic energy and trade routes, from the Horn of Africa to the Straits of Malacca. An India-UK collaboration on maritime security in the Indian Ocean and beyond can significantly transform the nature of this bilateral relationship.
A related aspect involves opportunities for qualitative defence transactions between the two countries. During Mr Cameron’s visit to Bangalore, the much awaited $800 million contract for 57 advanced jet trainers was signed between BAE Systems and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.
While the deal itself is important, defence ties have operated far below their potential. Mr Cameron’s austerity measures, proposing to shrink the size of the armed forces may provide a mutually beneficial opportunity to both countries. Britain plans to downsize the Royal Navy’s fleet of V-class nuclear-powered submarines. India for its part, is seeking to diversify its nuclear delivery systems, which are essential for maintaining a credible secondary-strike capability. Its sea-based deterrence system, however, is still nascent, with a small fleet of aging diesel-powered submarines. The induction of the indigenous Arihant-class nuclear submarines is still many years away. A British offer to lease some of its V-class submarines to India on a short-term basis will be well received in New Delhi. It can also help alleviate some of the cost pressures that Britain is currently facing without permanent reduction in defence capacity.
No doubt, with the sensitivity of the technology involved, India and Britain will need to conclude a more overarching dual-use agreement before transfers take place. This could in turn, pave the way for increased high-technology and dual-use trade between the two countries. In this regard, the two countries must also move forward in operationalising the civilian nuclear agreement, signed during Mr Cameron’s visit, which would allow the export of civilian nuclear expertise and technology to India. India’s $150 billion nuclear energy market provides export opportunities to British companies, even as Britain modernises its own nuclear power stations over the next 15 years.
Despite the rift created between developing and developed countries at the Copenhagen Summit, India and Britain can cooperate on climate change and renewable energy research. While India has made progress in developing more energy-efficient factories, its nonlegally binding goal of reducing emissions intensity on its economy from 20-25 per cent by 2020 can be attained with British technical assistance in cutting emissions and growing in a more energy-efficient way.
For the India-UK equation to transform into an “enhanced relationship” that Mr Cameron envisions, both countries must revisit mechanisms that will allow for such collaboration to take place. While Mr Cameron’s bold position on terrorism emanating from Pakistan will no doubt be appreciated and taken note of in the corridors of power, it will perhaps go down as an opportunity squandered if the momentum is not used to craft an alliance that can address mutual medium- and long-term interests and aspirations.