British Prime Minister India visit: Trade, Defence, Climate, Opportunity

Last week saw British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visit India over a two-day visit; one day in Gujarat and a second day in India’s seat of central government New Delhi. The visit was accompanied by £1BN of investment deals being announced with an impressive list of activity from British companies in India and Indian companies in the UK.

With the British Prime Minister navigating a challenging time on the domestic political front, it is good to see this visit come to fruition after several aborted attempts caused by Covid complications (much as the British press would like you to believe otherwise, it was well planned, not an opportunity to escape!).

At a time with considerable geopolitical turbulence globally centred around the conflict in Ukraine, it is notable and encouraging that the visit was used to underline the need for a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region. Prime Minister Modi welcomed the UK’s decision to join the Indo-Pacific Oceans initiative.

Turning to trade, last week saw the third round of the UK-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) talks getting underway. With both prime ministers talking about a timeline to conclude the FTA this year, there appears to be a strong commitment.  Will that be the much talked about Early Harvest agreement or the full FTA?  In some senses, it doesn’t matter as long as there is positive momentum for the benefit of both countries. Encouragingly, the mood music and momentum on the ground seem positive; in either form, this would be a welcome present as we head into the holiday season at the end of the year (Diwali, Christmas etc.).

On the topic of trade, Boris Johnson announced ‘I’ve the Indian jab (Covid-19) in my arm and it did me good. Many thanks to India’.  This is a useful highlight of the vital role India plays in vaccine production for the world. In the context of general commentary in the media of nations focusing on self-reliance in some areas, this reminds us of the value of international collaboration and global supply chains, and the opportunity the UK-India axis presents to both sides.

Very little commentary on FTA takes place without mention of visas.  Boris Johnson is reported to have signalled some flexibility on this topic stating a requirement for hundreds of thousands of workers; this is encouraging.  We would like to see India reinstate the e-visa for casual business for British nationals; this is causing headaches for business travellers wanting to visit the country at a time that we should be encouraging activity. As ever reciprocity seems to be the dominant driver of decision making here.

Bridging trade and defence, discussions also focused on next-generation defence and security collaboration. The UK will understand, and work with India to boost security in the Indo-Pacific, including new fighter jet technology, helicopters and collaboration in the undersea battlespace.

One notable element of Boris Johnson’s visit was to the newly-built campus of the Gujarat Biotechnology University (GBU) near Gandhinagar city in Gujarat, an institution which works with the University of Edinburgh.  As well as illustrating the power of collaboration for research-intensive organisations, we feel it may also be symbolic at a time when India is more actively courting foreign universities to set up locally.

Building on momentum from COP26 recently held in Glasgow, the UK and India are reported to be launching a virtual Hydrogen Science and Innovation hub to accelerate affordable green hydrogen. Additional funding was also announced for the Green Grids Initiative, a collaboration on joint work on the electrification of public transport across India.

There is so much to play for in the UK-India opportunity.  We welcome the progress being made on trade (do check out the ASCENT- Accelerating UK-India trade towards £50BN report we produced alongside valued partners which explores this in some depth), Climate and supporting universities work in India.  These are all areas the Sannam S4 Group specialises in supporting clients with and we are hopeful to deepen these areas of activity as the countries work more closely together.  Do let us know if you’d like to know more.

Author: Ed Dixon, Executive Director – UK, Seamless