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Decoding the Modi-Johnson summit

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British Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson’s visit to India accomplished a long-awaited objective.

On July 17, 2019, Johnson stood on a stage in London, waving a smoked fish above his head. “I want you to consider this kipper,” he told the crowd. British manufacturers of the traditional breakfast treat had their postage costs unfairly pushed up by European Union (EU) regulations. After Brexit, such red tape would be a thing of the past. “We will,” he said, “get our mojo back”.

It was classic Johnson – soaring rhetoric on a patriotic theme, delivered with an attention-grabbing stunt. That rules governing kipper shipments were set by the United Kingdom (UK), not the EU, was also characteristic of Johnson’s history of putting narratives ahead of facts.

Despite his popularity and ability to pull off successful feats in politics and governance, there appears a trait of dramatic overreach in his approach, often clouding harsh contradictory realities. That led the Conservative Party, led by Johnson, towards an excessive, carefree economic bonding with China, to the detriment of accepted norms and regulations governing international ties.

Johnson’s visit to India was a concerted move to re-calibrate ties with democratic states, and ward off increasing dependence on autocratic countries. A British report, leaked to the press in London, revealed how China and its global companies, such Huawei had penetrated Britain’s renowned institutions.

Moreover, Hidden Hand, authored by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, explicated Chinese influence operations across many geographies – including Britain – and international institutions. Hamilton and Ohlberg explicitly narrate a wake-up call about the deep entrenchment of the Chinese Communist Party’s undesirable economic influence among certain British elites.

It prompted a realisation in Britain that Chinese influence breached the proverbial demarcated line between a legitimate effort at winning support from other countries and the unacceptable use of corruption and coercion to shape decision-making in target nations. There was a major revolt in the ruling Conservative Party against undue and unfair Chinese penetration into the British economy. With further pressure from the United States, Johnson began to review the UK’s relationship with China.

During his first term in power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an effort to reach out to Britain; that appears to have petered out. Britain’s recurring efforts to balance India and Pakistan inevitably put off New Delhi. Nevertheless, the Indian establishment seems to have taken it in its stride by setting itself a political challenge: To decisively turn Britain in favour of India.

New Delhi has sufficient equities to bring about a change. Some years ago, Indian external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, addressing a business summit in London, emphasised that Britain remains a top-tier economy, commands significant international influence, enjoys special relations with Europe and United States, and is an important hub of global research and innovation.

Johnson’s arrival in India bespoke the potential use of Britain as a significant middle power and of India as a rising power in furthering a symbiotic relationship and expanding India’s strategic options. The successful completion of the ongoing India-UK Free Trade Agreement (FTA), marked by 26 segments, will be a significant achievement.

Johnson voiced his intent to assist in deepening the long-term partnership between the two countries. As threats to mutual peace and prosperity rise from autocratic states, democracies and friends must stick together.

This is a proper sequel to the energy emanated from the G-7 Summit held last year in the UK. That congregation clarified that apart from earnest dialogues among the member-states of the grouping, it was necessary to widen the ambit of such institutions beyond the geographic West by increasing parleys with large democracies like India.

As if on cue, a recent “Integrated Review of Defence, Security, and Foreign Policy”, released by the UK, speaks of the country’s desire to establish a more significant and more persistent presence in the Indo-Pacific than any other European country. It is highlighted by an eagerness to develop a maritime partnership with India to support mutual security objectives in the Indian Ocean.

This would be underpinned by enhanced collaboration in defence objectives, and the continuation of joint military exercises to improve interoperability. Another notable aspect is increasing industrial collaboration with India by building upon the “Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)”, signed in 2019.

The United Kingdom will continue to provide important financing arrangements regarding further investment. To bolster green infrastructure in India, a co-operative framework has been crafted between India and UK About $425 million will be provided by India, while the British International Investment (BII) would bring forth up to $1 billion in support. It is deemed to boost-up attendant manufacturing and services in India.

The Modi-Johnson summit emanated positive vibes. Therefore, thorny issues like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the scenario in Afghanistan, and its potential attendant effects on the region and beyond could surely be papered over skillfully without affecting sundry discernible promising attributes in relations between India and the UK.

Ranajoy Sen is an analyst. He writes on global affairs, economy and politics.

The views expressed are personal

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