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Boris Johnson Looks Abroad To Avoid Home-Grown Scandals – OpEd

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By Andrew Hammond*

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Besieged at home by scandals, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson heads to India this week to seek a change of political fortunes abroad, with a bilateral free-trade deal a key prize.

One of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that Johnson has undertaken very little international travel so far during his premiership, and what there has been was mainly confined to Europe. That is changing this year as he seeks to look beyond the continent to drive a new “Global Britain” campaign.

After only 13 foreign trips since July 2019, Johnson’s trip to India — his first to the country, and indeed the massive Asia-Pacific region, as prime minister — is a key sign that change is on the horizon. He wants it to send out a signal of what is to follow in 2022 and beyond.

For the UK government, Global Britain is about reinvesting in relationships, championing a rules-based international order, and demonstrating that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage. So the trip to India, with its population of more than 1 billion people, is a major moment for the prime minister.

London and New Delhi have, of course, long had a unique relationship, dating back to the days of the British Empire. But the growing warmth in bilateral ties under the leaderships of Johnson and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, is striking. During the coronavirus crisis, this included maintaining the flow of medical goods. The UK received many millions of face masks and packets of paracetamol from India during the pandemic, for instance.

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Both Johnson and Modi attach high importance to bilateral relations. In 2018, the latter became the first Indian premier to visit Britain in more than a decade.

The UK under Johnson has at least three big reasons to want the relationship with India to be as warm as possible. Firstly, the general cooling of ties with China has been more significant to London than it has been to many other European capitals.

In this context, the second reason is that London would like New Delhi to play an increasing role in international affairs. To this end, Johnson last year invited India, alongside fellow G20 states South Korea and Australia, to the UK-hosted G7 summit in Cornwall as part of the ambition to work with a group of like-minded democracies to advance shared interests and tackle common challenges.

The third reason is Brexit; Johnson wants UK firms, in the aftermath of Britain leaving the EU, to gain greater access to consumers in the massive Indian market through a new bilateral trade deal.

The strength of the contemporary economic relationship between the two countries is underlined by the fact that the UK is one of the biggest G20 employers and investors in India; more than 400 British firms have a presence there. India, meanwhile, is one of largest sources of foreign investment in the UK. More than 800 Indian companies currently operate there.

There are several distinctive elements of this economic relationship — which has come to dominate bilateral ties recently — that Johnson wants to emphasize in a post-Brexit trade deal. The first is that he would like to see even stronger cooperation in defense manufacturing as part of a wider bilateral security and defense dialogue. Here, he will encourage Modi to adopt a tougher stance on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

The second is encouragement of further international investment, via the City of London, to finance Indian infrastructure. The third is technology, given the significant investment in Indian telecoms and technology by UK-headquartered businesses.

Fourth is health, pharmaceuticals and life sciences. As the “pharmacy of the world,” India supplies more than 50 percent of the world’s vaccines. More than a billion doses of the UK’s Oxford/ AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine were manufactured at the Serum Institute in Pune, for example.

Yet despite all the potential benefits to be gained from a trade deal, there are challenges too. One key issue India is pressing for in a wider agreement is UK immigration reforms that will enable more Indian businesspeople and students to travel to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

However, despite the differences that remain between India and the UK on the details of a new, post-Brexit trade deal, what is more striking is how much economics has come to dominate the bilateral relations in recent times.

As this has happened, some of the traditional irritants have been de-emphasized, including the issue of human rights in India. In 2013, there was even a motion in the UK’s House of Commons calling on the government to reintroduce a previous travel ban on Modi, citing his alleged “role in the communal violence in 2002” in Gujarat.

As Johnson continues to prioritize post-Brexit ties with India, such controversies have been cast aside. During his time as PM, any irritants in UK-Indian relations look likely to be superseded by the desire for greater economic cooperation as London seeks to balance cooler relations with Beijing with warmer ties with New Delhi.

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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