The withdrawal from Afghanistan has marked a major departure from American foreign policy since 9/11. Under President Biden, the US is scaling back its commitments in order to place greater focus and resources on the threat posed by China and other major powers. This comes at a moment when Boris Johnson is hoping to realise his vision of a Global Britain that can help shape events on the international stage. As the United States reassess their foreign policy objectives, so should we.
In the Integrated Review, the Government set out an ambitious plan for the next decade and beyond but achievements in foreign policy are often won gradually through patience and constant engagement. Outside of EU structures, our diplomatic service has a unique opportunity to recast itself and the UK’s role in the world, especially in the Asian Pacific. One of the key strategic moves the UK can make is to forge a stronger partnership with India.
There are already a number of key alliances and agreements with countries in the Asia-Pacific region for the UK to build on. The Five Eyes intelligence alliance has allowed Australia and New Zealand to cooperate with the UK, Canada, and the US for decades. In more recent times, the UK has signed free trade agreements with Australia and Japan as stepping stones to accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The UK Carrier Strike Group has been deployed to the Pacific, carrying out naval exercises with the American, Australian, New Zealand, Japanese, and South Korean navies and air forces. Global Britain can only be a meaningful concept if the UK has a stronger presence in region to help counter the rise of China. This means building up engagement with countries in the region with shared interests and no country in the region could make a more decisive impact than India.
India is poised to become a transformative world power in this century. India’s population was projected to become the world’s largest by 2027, with the world’s third-largest economy by 2030. As the world’s largest democracy, India can also play a vital role in ensuring that the transition towards a multipolar world does not lead to an international system that is hostile to liberal values.
Prime Minister Modi and his brand of politics is certainly problematic and India has a far from perfect human rights record. But this should not mean keeping a distance from India. Instead, the UK must think long-term and put in place the right mechanisms for sustained engagement over the coming years. As a counterweight to China, India can become a valuable ally for the UK and the US in their efforts to prevent Chinese hegemony in the region.
Close engagement with India has been a longstanding feature of British foreign policy under Conservative-led governments, nurtured by David Cameron’s 2010 and 2013 trade missions as well as a State Visit in 2015. Johnson has continued these efforts, signing an enhanced trade partnership with India earlier this year ahead of a possible free trade agreement. This also forms the basis for greater economic and cultural ties between the UK and India as well as a springboard for discussions around shared interests in the Asia Pacific.
The historic and cultural ties between the UK and India are also rich, deep, and intensely complex. Colonialism’s legacy remains with both countries, triggering renewed debates since the Black Lives Matter protests last year. At the 2011 census, the UK was home to 1.4 million people of Indian ethnicity, contributing to public life and communities across the country. The UK will have to think about how to handle this legacy sensitively and with clear eyes as it seeks to work more closely with India.
A world dominated by China will not be a safe environment for free trade, human rights, or democracy. It will give authoritarian regimes greater freedom to menace their neighbours and destabilise their regions. The UK has a new part to play as a link between the world’s mid-ranking democracies and the most influential democratic powers. Relations between the UK and the US are long-established, but it is time for a stronger partnership with India to help shape the post-pandemic international order.