What the 2030 Roadmap for Future Relations Tells Us about UK-India Relations

In a virtual meeting on the 4th May, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a significant step for the future of India-UK relations in signing the 2030 Roadmap for India-UK Relations, which outlines plans for the relationship over the next ten years. The UK Government have announced on the 25th May that it has started preparations for the UK-India trade deal, the process will begin with a 14-week consultation involving the public and businesses, to seek their inputs regarding the deal. The UK Government is hoping the consultation will bring new insights to ensure the deal is representative, as well as securing cooperation in future-focused industries.

The Roadmap is the first since the formal ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ agreed in 2005, and there are mixed expectations about the capacity of the Roadmap to significantly strengthen the relationship. Nonetheless, recognising the need to redress the declining importance of the bilateral relationship – India went from being the UK’s second-largest trading partner in the late 1990s to being 17th in 2019 – the UK Government is hoping to start afresh in this project with renewed enthusiasm, as part of its Global Britain agenda.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a long-term supporter of strong India-UK relations and a self-proclaimed Indophile. The strategic importance of this economic partnership for the United Kingdom, built on strong cultural and diplomatic ties, was emphasised in the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, and will take on particular significance as the UK embarks on its proposed ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. Recognising the vital security role that India plays in the region, in the face of a rising China, the UK Government have invited Prime Minister Modi to attend this year’s G7 summit in Carbis Bay. Below we set out five key insights from the Roadmap, and consider how feasible its ambitions will be to achieve.

  1. The two nations have launched an Enhanced Trade Partnership with aims to speed up negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement.

 The Roadmap announces that India and the UK are launching an Enhanced Trade Partnership, which includes ambitions to double the value of UK-India trade by 2030 and speed up the first phase of pre-negotiations for a future free trade agreement. This is a positive step in UK-India relations, particularly ahead of the EU-India summit that took place days after the Roadmap was released, giving the UK a first-mover advantage. The Roadmap includes the agreement of investment deals valued at almost £1 billion, including commercial deals of £533 million investment from India into the UK, which if they eventualise, could generate more than 6,000 jobs. However, given Prime Minister Modi is yet to sign a single free trade deal since he’s been in power, and has rejected joining both the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, even with the agreement of an Enhanced Trade Partnership, the feasibility of a future free trade agreement remains in doubt.

  1. India and the UK will aim to work closely together on issues of climate change and reversing biodiversity loss.

 In the Roadmap, India and the UK commit to working together and co-leading on global climate action, outlining plans to launch the Global Green Grids Initiative at COP26 later this year to help achieve India’s vision of ‘One Sun, One World, One Grid’, aiming to implement a transnational electricity grid to supply solar power across the world. The two nations will also work together and share best practice on the development of offshore wind energy and electric vehicles and will co-chair the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.

The new US-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership, unveiled at President Biden’s Leaders’ Summit last month, shows a willingness by India to work with democratic powers to tackle climate change and biodiversity – although India failed to set a concrete net-zero target at the Summit itself. As the third-largest polluter globally, the UK Government recognises that cooperation with India on climate change will be essential to achieving the nation’s ambitions for global commitments at the COP26 Summit later this year.

  1. Defence and security is an area of increasing potential alignment for the UK and India.

The Roadmap commits the two nations to collaborate on tackling cyber, space, crime and terrorist threats, with the aim of developing a “free, open and secure Indo-Pacific region” to maximise democratic participation and economic opportunities, and counter the threats posed by a rising China. The UK and India will focus on research, innovation and technology, given these are areas of expertise for both nations, to develop new capabilities within defence and security spheres. Relations between India and China have deteriorated in recent weeks after a social media post from an account linked to the Chinese Communist Party, appeared to mock India’s Covid-19 crisis. With ongoing border disputes in Eastern Ladakh, India is increasingly recognising the importance of greater defence and security cooperation with the UK, the US and the EU, and this commitment is an important first step towards achieving that.

The Quad, a security partnership between the US, Japan, Australia and India, met virtually for their first official meeting in March this year. Following this meeting, the Quad have pledged to cooperate on telecommunications, specifically to strengthen and diversify 5G supply chains to challenge China’s dominance in this arena. While the alliance did not explicitly mention China, all four countries have banned Chinese company Huawei’s 5G technology, recognising the emerging threats and changing security paradigm. Enhanced UK-India defence cooperation will be critical for the UK’s success in the Indo-Pacific region, and the faltering relations between India and China presents a new opportunity to take this forward.

  1. Facilitating mobility between the two nations remains a central focus in discussions, and some progress appears to be possible.

Given our shared history, values and culture, the Roadmap outlines the importance of a strong people-to-people relationship between the UK and India. The Roadmap outlines the new Migration and Mobility Partnership for students and professionals, which will be implemented by April 2022. The partnership aims to encourage exchange and migration to facilitate enhanced cooperation in the next ten years, which is likely to be particularly welcomed in India after Theresa May’s decision to abolish graduate visas. Prime Minister May’s trip in 2016 was overshadowed by a lack of consensus around mobility, with her Government keen to implement a tighter border regime and unwilling to offer a loosening of migration barriers as part of trade conversations. Despite now-Home Secretary Priti Patel subsequently implementing a new graduate visa system, immigration policy has remained an obstacle to trade talks. The new Migration and Mobility Partnership includes a Young Professionals Scheme which will support the movement of up to 3,000 young and talented British and Indian graduates to live and work in the other country for up to two years. In return, India has agreed to accelerate processes in deporting citizens who are living illegally within the UK.

The UK and India will continue the biennial ministerial UK-India Science and Innovation Council to set the agenda for science and research collaborations with a focus on promoting the two-way mobility of researchers and increasing exchange between think tanks and universities. Alongside this, the Roadmap outlines plans to encourage diversity through a new Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions, which will support women in STEM subjects. Other initiatives also include a UK-India Young Entrepreneurship Forum. Cooperation on science and research is likely to be one of the more achievable ambitions, the two nations have strong educational partnerships, with approximately 55,000 Indian students studying at UK universities and UK Research and Innovation opening up offices in India in 2008, resulting in £300 million investments into programmes.

  1. India and the UK will guarantee equitable global vaccine supply by April 2022.

 The Roadmap committed to expanding both the breadth and depth of the current India-UK Health Partnership, aiming to increase global health and pandemic resilience, advance their respective roles in promoting Anti-Microbial Resistance, and “promote healthy societies and strengthen both our health systems”. These aims show an ambition by the UK and India to not only tackle more urgent issues relating to Covid-19, but also develop solutions for non-communicable diseases and ageing-related challenges. Alongside this, the two nations have committed to guaranteeing equitable global vaccine supply by April 2022, through an India-UK Partnership on Vaccines, Therapeutics and Diagnostics, as well as expanding the current UK-India Vaccines Hub.

This commitment comes at an important moment, with India’s current Covid-19 wave devastating much of the country. The UK has worked closely with India over the past year, most notably through collaboration between Oxford University, the Serum Institute of India and Astra Zeneca to create a vaccine that is “developed in the UK, made in India, distributed globally”. The UK has also supported India in its most recent wave of infections, through sending over 1,000 ventilators to India to aid pandemic relief in the region. India’s situation only catalyses the importance of the two nations’ collaboration to help tackle the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

Looking ahead

 The 2030 Roadmap on India-UK relations is ambitious, and offers a much-needed reset at a time of strategic urgency. While there may be questions over whether India is currently in the position to be a world player on global health resilience, and attention understandably drawn to its democratic backsliding and patchy human rights record, the relationship remains of enduring importance to the UK. When Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was recently questioned about Modi’s choices, he stated that he wouldn’t allow these to affect our bilateral relationship given the huge opportunities and avenues of cooperation, but that “we don’t duck the difficult issues.” In addition to this Roadmap, the G7 and COP26 Summits will provide important opportunities to further enhance partnership between the UK and India, but it is yet to be seen whether the ambitions articulated in this strategic plan will be achieved in practice.

Eleni Koumoundouros

Eleni is the Research and Events Coordinator at the British Foreign Policy Group.