Britain, India and Afghanistan

Transcript of a speech by Sir James Bevan KCMG, UK High Commissioner at the Vivekananda International Foundation in New Delhi, Wednesday 8 January 2014.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Sir James David Bevan KCMG

Mr Chairman, distinguished guests

It’s said that today a diplomat is nothing but a head waiter who is allowed to sit down occasionally. So thank you for letting me sit down.

It’s also said that a diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing. Well, I have thought quite a lot about this speech, more than twice, I hope; and I want to say something important – about the state of the UK/India relationship, and the prospects in Afghanistan. In short, both are good, and can be even better if we do the right things in the coming years.


Let me start with the relationship between India and Britain. It is flourishing.

  • We have common interests. A peaceful, prosperous and just world. A rules-based international order.
  • We share a deep commitment to democracy, human rights, pluralism and inclusive development.
  • We have shared history, values and language. We have the same bureaucracies and the same sense of humour. We both know, for example, that the TV programme Yes Minister is not a comedy but a documentary.
  • We are both committed to deepening the partnership between our two countries. My Prime Minister has now paid three visits to India since he took office in 2010, more than to any other country.
  • We are working together on almost all the things that matter to our citizens. And we are making progress in that endeavour.

Prosperity: together we are making our people more prosperous. In 2010 our two Prime Ministers set a target of doubling UK/India trade by 2015: we are making good progress towards that target. Inward investment is a huge success story both ways: India now invests more in the UK than in the whole of the rest of the European Union combined, and the UK is by most measures the single biggest investor in India. That’s creating thousands of jobs and increased growth in both our countries.

Security: together we’re making our people safer. Cooperation between Britain and India on security, counterterrorism and cyberattack is now closer than it has ever been. People are alive today on the streets of Birmingham and Bangalore because of the work our countries have done together to protect them. Criminals are being brought to justice in our respective courts because of the growing cooperation between our police and judicial systems.

Science and innovation: we have a real success story to celebrate here. Over the last few years partnerships between Indian and British research institutes and universities have grown exponentially. In 2009 the amount of research jointly funded by our two governments was only £1m: today it’s over £150m. Much of this R+D turns into practical applications which drive further prosperity for both our countries.

Global challenges: India and the UK are working together, at both central government and state level, to tackle the global issues that face us both, like climate change and energy security.

Development: the UK and India have agreed a new modern partnership for development, which will see an end to UK grant aid to India in 2015 and its replacement by loans to support private sector-led growth that lifts the poor out of poverty, technical advice, and cooperation on international policy issues that affect global development.

Foreign policy: on most big issues the UK and India share the same objectives even if we sometimes have different approaches on how to get there. We are now working more closely together on a range of foreign policy issues. The nuclear deal on Iran, if it succeeds, will be a success for the peaceful negotiated approach backed by the UK and India. We have worked together to support reconciliation and human rights in Sri Lanka and the democratic process in the Maldives and Bangladesh.

English: with support from the UK government and the British Council, more and more Indians are learning English. That is good for their job prospects and life chances. But it’s also good for the relationship between our two countries: literally speaking the same language will bring us closer together.

Culture: we have thriving cultural and artistic exchanges. Some of those are supported by our governments but most are now happening naturally and organically– exactly as it should be.

Indeed one of the most striking things about the relationship between the UK and India is that it is not just or even primarily about the relationship between our two governments, important though that is. Most of the wider relationship between our two countries has nothing to do with government. It’s about links between business, media, thinktanks like this one, NGOs, parliamentarians, states and local actors.

And the most important of all the links between the UK and India in terms of the strong and enduring relationship our two countries want are the links between people: the direct and personal links between our own citizens. People to people ties between the UK and India are strong and getting stronger. Some 400,000 Indians now come to the UK each year to visit, study or do business. Double that number of British citizens come to India each year, many from the UK’s Indian diaspora.

The latest UK census has shown that the Indian diaspora in the UK is now the biggest of any diaspora in the UK. It is also the richest and most successful – which says a lot about the talent and energy of people of Indian origin, but also says something about the modern UK’s openness to new arrivals and its willingness to let that talent thrive.

So the UK/India relationship is strong, deep and wide. But we can do better still. Three examples:

  • Trade: despite the growth in our trade figures, the UK still sells more goods to Switzerland (population 8 m) than it does to India (pop: 1.2bn). That’s absurd, given the natural fit between our two economies and natural links between our two countries. We should be looking to do much better than that.

  • Education: having our best and brightest young people study in each others’ countries is the best possible way to build lasting links between us. Yet very few British students come to India, and the number of Indian students coming to the UK has dropped. That represents a long term threat to our future links. We in Britain want to attract more Indian students to our universities. And I want to see more British students study in this wonderful country.

  • Foreign policy. As I said, Britain and India usually have a shared analysis of most foreign policy issues. What we have much less of at present is joint action to tackle those issues. We should aim to do more together on the big foreign policy and regional issues.


One example of a place where I believe we can do that is Afghanistan.

Point one: Afghanistan matters to us. It matters strategically, because an unstable Afghanistan would threaten this whole region and our friends in this region, including India. It matters to our security, because if Afghanistan were again to become a terrorist haven it would threaten not just its neighbours but also the UK. And it matters on a political and deeply personal level, because the UK has spent a great deal of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. We need to ensure that the heavy price our brave servicemen and women have paid produces an outcome worthy of their sacrifice.

All of that is why – point two - the UK is not leaving Afghanistan after 2014. Our combat troops will go by the end of this year. But Afghanistan is too important and still too fragile to be abandoned by the international community. So Britain will stay deeply engaged there for the foreseeable future. In particular we will help:

  • Ensure Afghanistan’s security. We can only protect our own security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs. So the UK will support the development of the Afghan National Army by providing mentoring and training support for the ANA Officer Academy near Kabul, popularly known as “Sandhurst in the Sand”. We will also contribute significant funding after 2014 to sustain the ANA.

  • Promote Afghanistan’s development. The UK will provide over $300m per year in development assistance until at least 2017 to ensure that progress already made is not lost.

  • Support Afghanistan’s democracy. We will help Afghanistan hold successful elections this year. We are helping build the institutions that can ensure good governance, the rule of law, accountability and lasting stability. As part of that, we support efforts to establish direct talks with the Taliban. Any lasting political settlement in Afghanistan must be inclusive. But those talks must be Afghan led, and there can be no accommodation with the Taliban unless they renounce terrorism and adhere to the Afghan constitution.

So what are the prospects for Afghanistan? Good, if we stay the course.

We are making progress. The ANA are improving all the time, and now play the lead role in protecting almost the entire Afghan population. Economic progress is visible across the country: Afghanistan’s GDP has increased tenfold since 2001 and Kabul is a thriving commercial hub. Education is improving: almost 6m Afghan children are now in school, including over 2m girls – and if there is a single magic bullet for successful development, it is to educate girls. Health is improving: life expectancy has risen by 18 years in just one decade. Governance is improving: the Presidential election this year will be the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Afghanistan in living memory. And more and more Afghans are voting with their feet and returning home: over 5 million so far.

We recognise that India has vital interests in Afghanistan. And India has a vital role to play there. India has the trust of the Afghan people: opinion polls regularly show that India is the most highly regarded by Afghans of any foreign country. India’s proximity and size means it will be a key actor in the country over the coming years. India’s prosperity and close trading links with Afghanistan mean it will be crucial in helping develop and sustain the country’s economy. And India’s $2bn aid programme is playing a major role in the development of Afghanistan, both in terms of large infrastructure projects like power and roads, but also in smaller local projects which promote agriculture, education and health.

Just as important as what the Indian government is doing in Afghanistan is what private Indian business is doing. Indian companies are among the largest investors in Afghanistan. Last year a consortium of Indian companies won a $10bn deal to mine iron ore. Other Indian companies are looking at further investments in minerals, health and education. Over the coming decade international aid will gradually and rightly start to drop: as that happens the role of the private sector, led by India, will be ever more important in establishing a prosperous and stable Afghanistan.

So Afghanistan matters hugely to both the UK and India, and both of us matter to Afghanistan. That’s why I believe there is scope for the UK and India to work more closely together over the next few years to promote the stable, peaceful, prosperous, democratic Afghanistan we all want to see.

Step one in that endeavour is to talk more to each other about Afghanistan, so that our common interests translate into common action. To that end our two Prime Ministers agreed in February 2013 to establish a Joint Working Group on peace, security and development in Afghanistan. It is meeting here in Delhi next week. We will take the opportunity then to discuss how we can work more closely together to build the Afghanistan we want to see and its people deserve.


Britain and India have a relationship that is strong, wide and deep. Our aim – and my job – is to turn that relationship into a genuine partnership; and to make that partnership ever stronger, wider and deeper. We have made progress in the last few years, but this is a decades-long project. We will keep going, because that partnership is, we believe, very much in the interests of our countries, our peoples, and the international community as a whole.

In conclusion, let me share one more saying about my chosen profession, which is this: a diplomat is someone who can make himself misunderstood in several languages. I hope I have not fallen into that trap today. If I have, I apologise. If I have not, I thank you for your attention.

Published 8 January 2014