Britain needs India more than India needs Britain

By Joseph Perry

This will be David Cameron’s second trip to India since becoming Prime Minister in 2010, and it is unlikely to be his last. Over his three day visit Cameron has talked of the many things that Britain can offer India whilst also hinting at how India can help Britain. Cameron has stated he wants the UK to be India’s ‘partner of choice’.  The UK has much expertise to offer regarding infrastructure, universities, and helping India liberalise its economy whilst the UK simultaneously benefits, Cameron has been driving for this in order to meet his promise of doubling trade with India by 2015. For Indian students the UK is still the number one destination to study. Despite recent fears over tighter visa restrictions Cameron has been quick to assure Indian students this will not be a problem for them. Both countries share cultural links from remnants of the British Empire; Indians are the single largest minority in the UK, and Chicken Tikka Masala is the UK’s favourite dish. However, the most noteworthy line to come from the Prime Minister was that he wants Britain and India to forge one of the great partnerships of the 21st century. I would argue this is a one sided hope.

India will no doubt identify some of the key economic and societal benefits the UK can contribute to its, not yet reached, potential. Some of the things David Cameron has said will be acted upon in the interest of both India and the UK. Its growth has recently slowed down, albeit only to 5.3%, but perhaps Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will heed the call to carry on with efforts to reduce red tape and regulation, along with cracking down on problems of corruption. The opening up of its economy would attract masses of inward investment from not just the UK but all over the World. However, this is not something that is all together sought after by all of India’s 1.2 billion populace. Retail liberalisation is just one example where huge opposition across India has led to stalls in reform – the kind of reform David Cameron is talking about. India’s politicians may want to take David Cameron’s advice in order to reignite perceptions of India fulfilling its potential, though it will continue to be a slow and long road ahead.

This said India’s politicians may well be inclined to simply shun David Cameron altogether. One brief glimpse at the UK’s economic outlook is enough to make any politician think twice before listening sincerely to the UK regarding its economy. Along with this, he is not saying anything particularly new, or what many other statesman such as President Hollande who visited last week, have put forward before. The only person who holds real political leverage or influence with India is President Obama. He went one step further than Cameron back in 2010 stating: the relationship between India and the US was destined to become ‘one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century’. The reason being, I would put forward, is that the US is the only country that can help India with its foreign policy objectives. Its key objective, something which it shares with the US, will be to check the growing influence of China. Both camps see strong Indo-US relations as essential for the balance of power in Asia. Relations have indeed been growing steadily for the last few decades, including agreements in defence relations, nuclear co-operation, naval cooperation and Indian support for the US in its ‘war on terror’.

Consequentially, Cameron would have more success in his Indian endeavours if he could help India in ways which the US can. On this point, there has been agreement between Britain and India to share cyber technology and cooperate further in this increasingly important field of security. It is well known that the Chinese are continuous perpetrators of cyber-attacks across the world and so this cooperation will surely be welcome in both India and Britain. However, Britain will struggle to rectify India’s feelings of encirclement as a result of the ‘string of pearls’, meaning the naval facilities China now has in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. China would defend these strategic moves as addressing its ‘Malacca dilemma’, further highlighting the ‘security dilemma’ India now finds itself in with China. Only the US has the military, economic and diplomatic power to assist India. If anything, the UK has been negligible of India over recent years, particularly under the Labour administration who showed very little interest in India whilst busy fighting terrorism. Furthermore, Indian foreign policy makers are sceptical over Britain’s relationship with Pakistan, often citing accusations of biasedness, on Britain’s part, towards their unfriendly neighbours. Also Britain is soon to stop giving aid to India. Likewise what is more bad news for Britain’s weight with India is the questionability of its EU membership.

Of course David Cameron is absolutely right in going to India in the manner he has done so, taking with him the largest trade delegation a Prime Minister ever has. Britain needs all the help it can get in trying to find some actual growth. Tapping into emerging markets is yet to be fully exploited by our service orientated economy, evidenced by the fact that Belgium trades more with India than we do.  Nonetheless, I would argue that Cameron should not expect too much when what he is asking for is nothing relatively new, and yet liberalising India’s economy remains slow resulting from respect for its century’s old traditions and customs. And crucially, Britain can offer only very minimal support to one of India’s prime foreign policy objectives whilst having antagonised India in this area of policy already. Overall David Cameron’s trip to India has merely shown that Britain needs its former jewel in the crown more than India needs Britain.

Originally published 26/2/13


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