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U.K.-India relationship in transformation

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — By any measure, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent visit to India has turned out to be a transformative one. In one stroke, he has redefined the parameters of the Indo-British partnership for the 21st century.

The Conservative Party has been clear about India being a priority for Britain since Cameron visited India in 2006. Cameron had written fondly of India before his visit: “India is the world’s largest democracy, a rapidly growing economy, a huge potential trading partner, a diverse society with a strong culture of pluralism and a key regional player — a force for stability in a troubled part of the world.”

He had suggested that though Britain’s relationship with India “goes deep,” it “should go deeper.” India and Britain forged a “strategic partnership” during former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to India in 2005, but Cameron’s visit has imparted a new dynamism to the relationship.

The visit primarily had a commercial focus. The new British government has decided to inject a “new commercialism” into the work of the Foreign Office and Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has written to all 15,000 employees of the Foreign Office to leverage the nation’s extensive diplomatic network in supporting its economy by drumming up business for Britain.

As the center of gravity for global economics and politics shifts to Asia-Pacific, Britain is looking to cultivate emerging powers in the region so that it can leverage the region’s economic growth to its own ends. This is especially important as Britain’s traditional economic partners, the European Union and the United States, are facing long-term economic problems that jeopardize Britain’s role as the world’s financial capital.

Disenchanted with its special relationship with the U.S. and with the overly bureaucratic EU, Britain is now looking to forge new partnerships in Asia. The aim of Cameron’s visit was to use India’s economic dynamism to help sustain Britain’s status as a major global economy.

Emphasizing the commercial nature of Indo-British partnership, Cameron led a delegation that included six ministers and more than 30 senior executives from top U.K. firms. Britain seeks ties with India across a range of sectors: information technology, infrastructure, defense, education, telecommunications and counterterrorism. Britain is the largest investor in India, with bilateral trade worth more than £13 billion.

Indian students are the second-largest group in Britain. Britain supports India’s candidacy for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Britain had supported U.S. efforts to shepherd a proposal in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to modify the group’s guidelines to permit trade in nuclear fuel and technology with India, a nonsignatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It’s not surprising, therefore, that India and Britain signed a civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact during Cameron’s visit.

It was on the politically sensitive issues of Pakistan’s use of terrorism as state policy, and Kashmir, that Cameron managed to break with the past. He warned Islamabad against promoting any “export of terror,” whether to India or elsewhere.

Cameron proposed a close security partnership with India and underscored Britain’s determination, like India’s, not to allow groups like the Taliban, the Haqqani network or Lakshar-e-Taiba to launch attacks on Indian and British citizens in India or Britain. Despite causing a diplomatic row with Pakistan and his political opponents back home, Cameron stuck to his comments.

More significantly, the British prime minister has rejected any role for his country in resolving the India-Pakistan dispute — in stark contrast to the previous Labour government, which viewed South Asia through the prism of Kashmir. Cameron has put aside Labour’s condescending posturing toward India and imparted a new “realism” into British policy with regard to the subcontinent.

As late as last year, the former foreign secretary and now contender for the Labour Party leadership, David Miliband, hectored the Indian government that a resolution dealing with the Kashmir dispute is essential for resolving the problem of extremism in South Asia. The Labour government failed to recognize that New Delhi’s ties with Washington could not evolve until after the Bush administration more or less accepted the merits of India’s arguments on Kashmir.

At the end of Cameron’s visit, the Indian prime minister described India and Britain as “natural partners for shaping a better world.” This is a far cry from 1997, when then British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook offered to mediate between India and Pakistan over Kashmir only to be reminded by then Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral that “Britain is a third-rate power nursing illusions of grandeur about its colonial past.”

Cameron’s move to transform the Indo-British relationship is bold, but will it work?

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.