This post is based on a seminar series talk organised by King’s College London’s Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC), which took place on 24 November 2015.
As the UK tries to reenergise its economy, manage its diverging interests with the US and the EU, and debate its role in the Middle East (especially the latest decision to bomb ISIS in Syria) and Afghanistan, it has reached out to the two Asian giants – China and India. Given their economic prowess these two competing Asian powers have tremendous global appeal. Reciprocating the UK’s overtures, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited London in October and November 2015 respectively. Going by media optics and the series of economic and other agreements signed, both the visits were big successes. For the UK to increase its strategic appeal in the long run, however, it needs to ensure that it is seen more than just a trading partner in Beijing and New Delhi. For, despite the importance of increased trade, the UK still does not figure high in the political agenda of both these countries. What will go a long way in bringing some strategic parity, however, is a sustained dialogue on some well-known political roadblocks. If China’s tendency to build massive trade surplus with its partners and complicated human rights records were two problem areas, Pakistan and Afghanistan were the (literally) unspoken thorns during Modi’s visit.
The Chancellor to the Exchequer George Osborne termed the 21st century as a ‘golden era’ in UK-China bilateral relations, and PM David Cameron projects UK as China’s ‘best partner in the West’. China for its part invested nearly £40 billion (US$ 62 billion) in Britain, the proceeds of which, government claims, will help create 3,900 new jobs. Reflecting a pragmatic angle to bilateral ties, economic relations between the two countries have grown tremendously over the past ten years. The UK attracted nearly US$12 billion of Chinese foreign investment in 2013, more than France and Germany combined, while China became the sixth largest goods export market for the UK in 2014, up from rank 14 in 2003. With its steel production reaching over-capacity, China requires buyers lest its growth bubble deflates (though unlikely). This was one reason why the nuclear power, automobile, healthcare, public works, and railroad sectors in the UK benefitted tremendously from Chinese investment. And all this happened despite the worries of an ‘aggressive’ and ‘expansionist’ China, which has no democracy, is routinely charged for violating human rights, and is the biggest source of cyber attacks against Western targets. Though a cyber-security pact was signed to convince London that China would not undertake commercial e-espionage against British firms, there was no mention of the human rights issue.
The US, Britain’s traditional strategic partner, not surprisingly, did not take kindly to London’s pragmatism towards China. How will the UK negotiate its Chinese ‘golden era’ with Washington? Arguably, this should have been the least of London’s worries given the whopping US$579 billion (2012 estimate) trade between the US and China. But even the free trade debate was at its most intense this year, as the US’ trade deficit (with China) surged to US$ 51.4 billion in March 2015 from US$ 35.9 billion just a month earlier. There has been no sign of this deficit reducing anytime soon. Not just the US, but also its allies – including India – complain that China’s massive trade surplus gives it a strategic edge over its competitors. The fact that the UK is entertaining Beijing, at the exact moment when the latter’s primary strength – excessive industrial production – is becoming its primary weakness, is difficult to accept for many in the US. More than the economic implications of the same, it is the political symbolism that ruffles the feathers.
Modi’s visit, despite having divided the South Asian diaspora and some members of the UK Parliament, was termed a ‘huge moment’ for UK-India relations. India had just overtaken China to become the fastest growing economy in the world. For the second half of the 2014-15 fiscal year, India’s growth rate touched 7.4 per cent whereas China stood at 6.9 per cent. Further, Modi and Cameron signed deals worth more than £9 billion and pacts on wide-ranging issues such as defence, cyber-security, railways, and nuclear power. Ranking 18th in the top 25 trading partners of India, bilateral trade between the two countries stands at US$ 14.34 billion. The biggest strength of this relationship, however, is the 1.6 million plus strong Indian diaspora that occupies an important place in Britain’s social and economic fabric. The grand welcome reception at Wembley stadium, where close to 70,000 British Indians were present to cheer Modi on, was a reflection of these cultural links. And unlike Beijing, New Delhi is not seen as much of a threat by any of the UK’s Western allies barring on the issue of climate change. But some critical issues remain, such as the UK’s approach towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have done much harm than good to this relationship.
Kashmir and the Afghan war are issues on which New Delhi and London don’t see eye to eye. In 2009, for instance, British foreign secretary David Miliband said that the road to peace in Afghanistan was connected to Kashmir, cementing the perception in India that London was favourably biased towards Pakistan. The 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan that baptised the reconciliation process with the Afghan Taliban was also seen as a sell out to Pakistan. Britain wanted Kabul and the Afghan Taliban to launch a dialogue without any preconditions. Such talks, New Delhi argued, would be sabotaged by Pakistan. London’s persistent questioning about the role of Indian consulates in Afghanistan and their alleged anti-Pakistan activities only added to India’s consternation. Not surprisingly, Modi refused to discuss either Pakistan or Afghanistan with Cameron. Despite progress in all other spheres, the UK is one of the most mistrusted coalition members in Afghanistan among Indian officialdom. Even Cameron’s delicate handling of this issue during his 2010 India visit (and afterwards) did little to change New Delhi’s mind.
Political hot topics that are untouched in such situations are often the most critical in making or marring relationships. Despite Cameron’s three visits to India with major business delegations since 2010, London was Modi’s 27th stopover in his busy travel itinerary since becoming PM in May 2014. Xi’s visit too occurred at a time when China was witnessing a financial downturn. Despite the various promises made and deals signed, the context in which these two visits occurred, reflect the fact that the UK is not a strategic priority for the two Asian giants. And trade links will take these relationships only so far. What is needed is an ongoing dialogue not just with China and India on these political ‘no-go’ areas, but also an alignment of ideas with the US. London can easily mismanage its outreach to China and become Beijing’s lonely partner in the West – and eventually lose its appeal in the long run. Or else, it can take the political lead and become an effective ‘bridging power’ that brings these two world powers closer. As for India, having set the ball rolling during Modi’s visits, London should ensure that the damage its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy has done, is addressed. Even just showing that it cares about Indian sensitivities on these key regional issues – for they matter a lot among Indian officials – will make a considerable difference.
Image: PM Modi with President Xi in New Delhi, September 2014. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.