UK-India: relations going from strength to strength

Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire's speech about UK-India relations on 4 October.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Hugo Swire

Let me express my gratitude to the IISS for hosting this important dialogue between British and Indian policy formers. This is exactly the sort of event that will help us to strengthen our strategic relations with one another.

Today is my one month anniversary as Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with responsibilities including India. This is the first policy speech that I am giving in this capacity. I could think of no more appropriate topic, and as an old friend of John Chipman, the Chief Executive of the IISS, I can think of no more appealing venue.

On walking into my new office a month ago, the first thing I noticed amid the dark wood panelling was the gold lettering emblazoned above the huge mirrors behind the desk and above the fireplace opposite. It spells a single word: India.

Indeed, I have the fortune of occupying what was formerly the office of the Secretary of State for India - albeit in completely different times and circumstances. The mirrors, the artwork, the twin doors to the office that were built to accommodate the visits of two Maharajas of equal rank are testament to the impact that India has had - and continues to have - on British history. I am constantly reminded of our deep roots; our common language and cultural reference points; but also of the complex baggage that has traditionally come with our relationship.

So before addressing the topic of our discussion today, I want to look first at the context of our relations. I would then like to take a step back and consider our overarching interests in the world. I will suggest that we have more goals in common than is often appreciated.

At a social level the links that the UK shares with India are tremendously deep and important. With around one and a half million people, the Indian diaspora in Britain is bigger than any other minority group.
And many have become British national cultural treasures: Farrokh Bulsara whose family came from Bulsar in Southern Gujarat grew up to become one of the greatest Rock Stars of all time as Freddie Mercury; Krishna Pandit Bhanji went on to win Oscars, Golden Globes and Baftas as Sir Ben Kingsley.

Nasser Hussain, born in Madras, was one of England’s best Test Cricket Captains, and Monty Panesar one of its best spin bowlers. Though unfortunately Samit Patel and Ravi Bopara were unable to prevent our unceremonious departure from the World Twenty 20 this week. I am sure I am not alone in looking forward to the clash of the great Test Cricket titans when England tour India next month.

The Orbit, designed by Anish Kapoor and funded by Lakshmi Mittal made a permanent mark on the Olympics this summer and will remain one of the sights of London. And I am wholly convinced that Lord Coe’s successful stewardship of the London Olympics was due in no small part to his Indian heritage!

But there are also unsung heroes across our society: doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, and teachers. Over 700 Indian businesses operate in the UK, accounting for 90,000 jobs. The Tata Group is the largest corporate employer in the country.

People often assume that because of our long shared history, the UK and India have an inbuilt understanding of each other. However, the deep social links between our societies have not always translated into a shared strategic outlook.

In fact, in the years after India’s independence, we did not find ourselves on the same side of the Cold War’s ideological divide. The UK was in NATO, India was a treaty partner of the Soviet Union, and our relations were overshadowed by the memory of the Raj.

The 1990s saw tremendous strides forward. The collapse of the Soviet Union freed up both sides to reassess aged prejudices. The 1991 Indian economic reforms reawakened interest in each others’ economies. Narasimha Rao and John Major set up the Indo-British Partnership in 1993, when the Prime Minister was invited as India’s Chief Guest on Republic Day. It marked a decisive break with the past and formed the basis of a ‘modern’ relationship between our two countries.

I shall not dwell on the previous Government’s record with India, but it is fair to say that the relationship advanced in fits and starts throughout their period of office.

Then in July 2010 David Cameron opened a new chapter in our relationship. I read recently that ‘It took Gordon Brown ten years to visit India from the moment he first entered Downing Street in 1997 as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It took David Cameron and George Osborne just ten weeks’. In addition to the Chancellor, the Prime Minister brought with him the biggest British delegation in living memory and set out his vision for an enhanced partnership between India and the UK - a new Special Relationship based on shared culture, values, and strategic interests.

We realise that India is re-emerging as one of the world’s great powers. William Hague, our Foreign Secretary, was absolutely right when he said at the launch this year of the Kings College India Institute that “this century will be shaped by India more than any other that has come before it.”

That is why we are determined to increase our understanding of Indian priorities and concerns. We have already opened a new Deputy High Commission in Hyderabad and another is to follow in Chandigarh. We are in active discussions with the Indian government to open five new trade offices across India. It is a large country and we want to understand all of it. And as the Foreign Secretary announced at the new Kings College India Institute - which should itself contribute to Britain’s understanding of India - we are forming a new cadre of Foreign Office staff with Indian expertise.

Given the focus of this session, I shall resist the temptation to go into detail about all the aspects of our flourishing bilateral relationship.
Suffice it to say that we are well on track to achieving our target of doubling trade by 2015, and that deeper collaboration in areas such as science, education and technology is improving the lives of people in both our countries. For example, a British Council and UK Aid programme has trained one million English teachers across India.

And our parliamentary links are growing despite a group of our parliamentarians getting brutally trounced in a cricket match against a group of Indian parliamentarians on their visit to Dharamsala last year - but I shan’t dwell on that; the wounds are still raw!

This growing collaboration is echoed in our strategic relations. We have developed a series of official dialogues on the security challenges that will shape the 21st Century, including East Asia, the Middle East, Counter-Terrorism, Disarmament, Cyber Security, and Peacekeeping.
As a case in point, over the last month we have received visits from Deputy National Security Advisor Latha Reddy and His Excellency Foreign Secretary Ranjan Matthai - with whom I was delighted to have held discussions yesterday. The coming weeks will see visits to India by our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and our National Security Adviser, Sir Kim Darroch.

On defence, we have close cooperation too. We have in place a comprehensive programme of bilateral exercises across all three services. Our Defence Ministers have annual strategic talks, our military experts visit each other regularly and every year Indian officers come to the UK to attend military courses - three in the Royal College of Defence Studies, three in Shrivenham, and even more at Sandhurst and Cranwell. The British officers who attend equivalent courses in India highly value the experience.

Our deepening strategic relations can also be discerned from our strong support for India to have a greater say in international institutions. We have long supported India’s candidacy for a Permanent Seat on the UN Security Council and we also support Indian membership of the international export control regimes. We are delighted that decision making on global governance has expanded to a G20 level and David Cameron has publically proclaimed Prime Minister Singh’s ‘great intellectual leadership in economic matters’ in that forum.

So we most certainly have a framework in place for building stronger strategic relations between India and Britain. Our avenues for cooperation are widening. But some remain sceptical about the convergence of our interests. Over the past couple of years we have voted different ways on some Security Council resolutions; we have different approaches to Iran, start from different places on global issues like climate change, and are situated geographically in very different security environments.

Having a strategic relationship does not mean always agreeing on everything. It is about developing a mature relationship of equals, where we can discuss our problems and concerns like adults, rather than preaching to one another like children. It is about developing a mutual understanding that helps us to cooperate where our interests converge and respect our differences where they do not.

As it so happens, I believe that we have far more interests in common than those sceptics give us credit for. Let me give you three important areas in which misunderstandings mask similar ultimate ends: stability in the Middle East, fighting terrorism, and sustainable development.

In the Middle East, we have a common interest in a region that is stable, secure, and economically successful. I understand that there are around six million Indian’s living in the Gulf. Their safety and ability to send remittances home to their families will obviously be of huge concern to the Indian government. Like most countries, Britain has been alarmed by civil unrest across the region, in particular we are deeply disturbed by the gross violations of human rights, state atrocities, and breakdown of law and order that we see today in Syria. And we acknowledge that instability can breed further short term instability.

But the Arab Spring has underlined the importance of democratic transition to the long term stability of the region. Without respect for human rights or transparent and accountable government, pressure will build within societies, increasing the risk of a instability and insecurity.

The Arab Spring has been led by the region. But there is a crucial role for the international community in supporting the people of the region as they build a better future for themselves. I am convinced that it is in both our countries’ interests to support the fledgling democracies and their economies, and to challenge those who wish to stifle the legitimate aspirations of their people.

Beyond the Arab Spring, the stability of the region is being seriously challenged by the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran. Were Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, instability would spread far beyond the Middle East. Both the UK and India have made their concerns clear at the IAEA.
We are completely committed to the diplomatic process that is underway and to finding a peaceful negotiated solution. But we are also committed to intensifying pressure on Iran to bring one about.

It is our hope that sufficiently comprehensive and targeted economic sanctions will be a serious enough inducement for the Iranian government to address our concerns. Of course, sanctions can harm the sanctioner as well as the sanctioned - especially in this tough economic climate. But their cost would pale in comparison to the cost to the global economy of a nuclear-armed Iran.

To be successful, sanctions need to be coordinated. And we believe that the international community must isolate the Iranian government, which uses international recognition as a source of legitimacy.

We may have different views on how to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. But I believe we have a common interest in making Iran see the seriousness of the situation and to persuade it to negotiate with the international community in good faith and in good time.

The second area in which I see a clear convergence of interests is in preventing terrorism. Both our countries have suffered from horrific terrorist attacks over the last decade.

Some critics assert that the UK is only interested in threats to its own people. This is utterly false. It is impossible to tackle terrorism alone and it is equally impossible to geographically isolate its effects. There were eight British victims of the Mumbai attacks. I have just come from a meeting with some of the families of the twenty-six British people who were killed in the 2002 Bali bombings which marks its tenth anniversary next Friday. The British death count in the 9/11 attacks was sixty-seven.
We see threats to India as threats to Britain. That is why we proscribed the Indian Mujahidin and pushed for the Laskar-e-Taiba to be added to the UN Consolidated List under Resolution 1267.

And we place utmost importance on preventing Afghanistan from being used ever again to stage terrorist attacks against any other country. Another civil war or fractioning between north and south is not an option. We have committed ourselves to Afghanistan beyond the end of our combat mission in 2014 and fully support the important role that neighbours like India continue to play.

Let me point out that our contributions to the stability of Afghanistan have been mutually reinforcing. The security provided by NATO forces created the conditions in which Indian civilian and development programmes could take place. And India’s assistance has helped to tackle some of the underlying causes of instability in the country.

Terrorism is a common menace, which can only be tackled if like-minded countries stand side-by-side. There is no question that on this, we are like minded. And we are utterly committed to working with India against terrorist threats to both our countries.

It is worth mentioning that the nature of threats is changing. For example, we are increasingly vulnerable to attacks from cyberspace - which can be conducted from anywhere in the world by criminals; states; even geeky children. It is the ultimate globalised threat and will therefore require a tightly coordinated international response. Our interests in cyber security are mutual and we want to cooperate with India at the Budapest Conference on Cyber Space, which William Hague is opening today, and through our continuing discussion on bilateral cyber issues.

The final area on which I want to touch is sustainable development. Both our countries want to create the conditions for long term stable and sustainable growth in our economies.

I have heard accusations that the UK - and the West more broadly - want to deny India and other emerging powers their opportunity to grow, locking in inequality by setting onerous international standards on trade and climate change.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do we want India to keep up its impressive economic development, we - and the rest of the global economy - depend on it. Our economy relies on India’s for jobs, investment and opportunities like never before. Economic growth in India is most certainly in our interests.

And growth in other parts of the world is in both our interests. India and Britain are both outward-looking countries, reliant on open economies and trade governed by common rules and standards. In periods of global economic difficulty, there can be a tendency for countries to turn to short-sighted protectionist policies. I believe that we should be united in resisting such temptations.

A strategic relationship in the 21st Century cannot focus solely on threats from conflict and terrorism. It must also encompass questions of energy security, climate security, food and water security and global trade policies. We both desire long term global growth and should work not only to increase trade between our two countries but to create the conditions in the global economy for mutual prosperity.

So, can the UK-India strategic relationship be built further? I certainly believe they can be. The relationship between our two countries is going from strength to strength in so many areas.

I hope that any accusations that the United Kingdom does not listen to India can be laid to rest once and for all. The last two years have shown that both sides are keen to build a stronger relationship - a partnership of equals based on mutual understanding, respect, and trust.

We are putting the institutions in place to support this partnership, and as I have argued, we increasingly have common interests that will drive it. That is not to say that we will always see eye-to-eye on everything or even take similar approaches to common problems. But by talking to one another, listening to one another, learning from one another, and understanding one another better, we can fulfil our potential as close friends and partners.

There is an extremely impressive array of experience and knowledge in this room. I hope to use this session as a continuation of my own learning experience. So I very much look forward to hearing the perspective of His Excellency, Dr. Bhagwati but I am also interested in hearing from the audience how they assess the UK-India strategic relationship, and how we could build it further.

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Published 4 October 2012