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Last month, the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson was to be in India as part of his outreach in a post-Brexit world. But then covid came in between, much like in January, when Johnson had to cancel his visit due to a surge in the pandemic in the UK. This time, it was the Indian situation which resulted in the cancellation of a visit that was aimed at resetting the terms of engagement between India and the UK.

The virtual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his UK counterpart last week was nonetheless able to generate a new momentum in a relationship that was failing to live up to its inherent potential. The two leaders unveiled an ambitious 10-year roadmap to boost cooperation in key areas, including defence, security and healthcare, in an attempt to elevate ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership over the next decade. At the centre of this ambition is an economic relationship, an enhanced trade partnership, which is aiming for a doubling of bilateral trade by 2030 and features a determination to negotiate a comprehensive and balanced free trade agreement that would involve an interim trade deal by mid-2022.

Ahead of the virtual summit, new trade and investment pacts worth £1 billion were announced by the two sides, which includes around £533 million of new investment from India in the UK. The Pune-based vaccine maker Serum Institute of India will also be investing £240 million in the UK. Significantly, London and New Delhi have also concluded a deal allowing thousands of young professionals to work and live in each other’s countries for two years.

India is at the heart of the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, which has generated considerable interest around the world. Johnson came to office promising one of the deepest and broadest British foreign, security, development and defence reviews since the end of the Cold War, and the Integrated Review released in March categorically underlined that, “In the decade ahead, the UK will deepen our engagement in the Indo-Pacific, establishing a greater and more persistent presence than any other European country."

With the centre of gravity of global politics and economics shifting to the Indo-Pacific, it ambitiously aims at positioning the UK as the most engaged European power in the region by 2030—diplomatically, economically, and geostrategically. Johnson has been eager to showcase to the world Britain’s ability and willingness even in a post-Brexit world to defend the global liberal order, most conspicuously threatened by the rise of China. The decision to leave Europe’s single market has forced the UK to look for strong trade relationships with partners beyond the EU, and to target the most dynamic economies—of which a considerable number are located in the Indo-Pacific region.

For the UK, this Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ will entail close diplomatic cooperation with like-minded nations, the most important of which is the US. It would also involve reinvigorating the so-called Five Power Defence Arrangements involving Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. Beyond its traditional partners, the UK seems cognizant of the reality of engaging with other major regional players, including Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and India. At the G-7 meeting of foreign ministers last week, the UK took the lead to galvanize the platform in support of rules-based open seas and navigation.

Economically, the UK is seeking a new role for itself within the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework, and has opened negotiations with the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The G-7 ministerial gathering last week also saw the UK reinforcing the need to build reliable supply chains and technologies, so that no single country can exercise a veto in times of crisis.

Militarily, in an attempt to convince a sceptical world about the UK’s hard power capabilities, HMS Queen Elizabeth, the British Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, will lead an allied task force into the region in 2021. One of the aims of this exercise would be to underline the UK’s “ability to project cutting-edge military power in support of NATO and international maritime security." A larger and sustained maritime role for the UK in the Indo-Pacific is being envisioned at a time of great regional turbulence.

It is clear that the UK is trying to adapt to changing strategic realities and is seeking a greater balance in its ends, ways and means. This ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific is still a tilt, and there is a long way ahead. There is some genuine scepticism about the ability of the UK to pull it off. But it does present India with a unique opportunity to recalibrate its ties with London, which have struggled to respond to 21st century realities. Recent announcements suggest that New Delhi is willing to take the plunge. With the UK expanding its footprint in the Indo-Pacific and India being the critical node between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, there is much natural synergy that New Delhi and London should be able to exploit to their common advantage.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations, King’s College London

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