‘India to be among world’s three defining countries’: British high commissioner | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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‘India to be among world’s three defining countries’: British high commissioner

Mar 18, 2023 04:27 AM IST

In an interview with HT, the high commissioner said that India and the UK are “into the end game” in negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) and the focus is on the “tough stuff”, such as greater opening of each other’s goods markets and new work routes for Indian nationals.

Britain’s revamp of its 2021 security and foreign policy, triggered by the Ukraine crisis and China’s actions, creates opportunities for India and the UK to work together to deal with coercion and avoiding critical dependencies, British high commissioner Alex Ellis said on Friday.

British high commissioner Alex Ellis.
British high commissioner Alex Ellis.

The updated policy commits the UK to working with partners such as India to secure its interests in the Indo-Pacific and calls for reform of the UN Security Council to include India, Brazil, Japan and Germany as permanent members.

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India is an “ever more central country” to the UK in areas ranging from education, having overtaken China as the biggest source of international students to the UK, to investment, where it is the second biggest investor in new projects, to cooperation in science and technology, Ellis said.

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“If you go through the integrated review, the themes of dealing with coercion and the need to avoid critical dependencies – both have been highlighted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That is something which the UK and India will surely be working on more and more together,” Ellis said.

In an interview with HT, the high commissioner said that India and the UK are “into the end game” in negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) and the focus is on the “tough stuff”, such as greater opening of each other’s goods markets and new work routes for Indian nationals.

Asked if the controversy over the tax survey at BBC offices had blown over, Ellis said countries such as India and the UK, with a growing trust partnership, “should be capable of talking to each other frankly” on such matters.

Were the Ukraine crisis and China’s actions the triggers for the revamp of the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy?I think that’s right. The four basic core bits of the integrated review -- strategic competition, a shift of power, the importance of science and technology, and worsening global challenges – all remain intact. But you’re right, you have the combination of some of the behaviour of President Xi Jinping’s China and of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. I don’t think that changes the fundamental point that Russia is the storm, but China makes the weather, but it’s sharpened it a bit.

There’s a bit more of Europe in there as well because of the way we’ve reached a kind of post-leaving the European Union settlement through the Windsor Framework, through the recent Anglo-French summit and through the cooperation in Europe, but not just with Europe, on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The 2021 integrated review was noted for the tilt toward the Indo-Pacific. Is there now a rebalancing? No, I don’t think there is. Russia is the immediate threat. The Indo-Pacific tilt, if anything, has gone further. The integrated review refresh is explicit about it being a permanent change in the way we approach the world. It talks about the Atlantic-Pacific because if you think of a series of things which have happened since then - there’s a global response to coercion and the threat of critical dependency. I think those two things have got sharper in the last two years. If you look at what the UK has done, for example, with the future combat air programme with Japan and Italy, with AUKUS, with what we’ve done with India over the last two years. [There’s been] an enormous acceleration of our partnership. There is a thing now called the Atlantic-Pacific because you have to deal with these things in a global way. India is going to be, for the rest of my lifetime, one of the three defining countries of the world, the US and China being the others.

Where does India fit into the revamped security and foreign policy? Number one, it’s fundamental [and] it is an ever more central country of interest to the UK. And that is in a very broad way, in everything from education - India has now overtaken China as the biggest source of international students to the UK -- through to investment, India is now the second biggest investor in terms of new projects in the UK, through to cooperation in research, science and technology. Since the integrated review, you saw the impact of the Covishield vaccine, if you want an example of global threats and how the UK and India can work together, but that has consequence not just for the UK or India, but also for other countries around the world. You see how central India is going to be.

The revamped policy talks about the UK working with partners to prevent China’s coercive behaviour and specifically mentions Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, but there’s no mention of the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). I think that’s the work we do with India to secure the Indo-Pacific and we do put it in those terms -- an open and secure Indo-Pacific -- and in a way that’s part of why we’re doing AUKUS as well. For example in [India’s] Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, we’re going to work on the maritime security pillar. We just had a Royal Navy boat in the Andaman Islands for the first time in a very long time. We’ll be coming back. We are increasing our awareness of the ocean with India. Secondly, we’re beginning to do patrols. I think the next step will be joint exercises and ultimately joint operations. That’s the area I would say where the Indian government is saying we want to do much more with you. I think it’s a reflection of what the UK has to offer in this region and what India’s government and armed forces want of the UK.

On the Ukraine crisis, there’s pushback from sections in India about this being a European war. European leaders say the Russian invasion could trigger the same sort of behaviour elsewhere. Where does Britain stand on this? We could see clearly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not just a European war. Of course it’s the epicentre, it’s just an autocracy invading its democratic neighbour, not something we want to encourage for the rest of this century. But it has global consequences. You can see that now in energy and fertiliser prices, it’s impacting every country in the world. A war entirely of [Russian] President Putin’s making. So, it’s a global consequence, not just a European consequence. If you go through the integrated review, the themes of dealing with coercion and the need to avoid critical dependencies -- both have been highlighted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That is something which the UK and India will surely be working on more and more together. The answers to that, some of them are in defence - we talked about naval cooperation, ensuring a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific – and some of them will be in trade. And that’s why we’re negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA).

Coming to India’s historic relationship between Russia, is there a wish in the UK or among your European partners of a possible change in the Indian thinking? What there is certainly between the UK and India is a desire to reduce critical dependencies which create vulnerabilities...India thinks a lot about its own resilience and the UK is thinking a lot about its own resilience. In some ways, the UK is catching up with India about the need for resilience. But you don’t need to do that alone. Your resilience is increased by closer cooperation with your friends, and that is happening all around the world. You could do it through developing vaccines together, you could do it through having trade agreements, you can do it through having navy ships working together. There’s a whole range of different tools for how you deal with that. But that core need for increased resilience and the threat of coercion having increased, that is applicable globally.

Where do we stand on negotiations for the India-UK FTA and what are the hiccups? You are into the tough end of the negotiation. We have done the majority of the negotiations, we continue at some pace. I think the visit here of trade minister Kemi Badenoch last December renewed the energy in the negotiation and it went into the hard stuff. My metaphor is we walked along the long valley, we’ve got up to base camp and now what we’re doing is beginning the ascent. Like the beginning of any ascent, that’s quite hard. We are down to core issues, where both countries would like to see a bit more opening of each other’s goods markets, looking at tariffs. Some opening on the services side. It’s very encouraging to see the recent announcements from the Bar Council of India about some regulations that will change in relation to access for foreign lawyers, which we reciprocate, appreciate and understand. The UK is very open for Indian lawyers.

And for India, some of the new work routes for Indian nationals. So you’re into the hard bits. Our trade ministers are in regular contact but this is a negotiation.

Is there some indication when the deal will be finalised? We’re into the end game. We now need to get into the tough stuff and that takes a bit of doing, but I think that both sides want the quality to be the thing which defines the agreement.

On the issue of the tax searches against the BBC – has that blown over or is that something that the UK continues to take up with its Indian interlocutors?

Countries which have an ever growing and increasing trust partnership, which the UK and India do, should be capable of talking to each other frankly. About some things they do in private, and we do do that in private and that’s part of the kind of relationship we want between the two countries.

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