Over a year into his premiership and Boris Johnson is yet to define Britain’s place in the world after Brexit. His priority has been on negotiating with the EU over the UK’s future relationship, and since March foreign policy has been relegated to the backburner with Johnson preoccupied by both the national – and his personal – recovery from Covid-19, with National Security Council meetings temporarily paused. However, by November we should have a clearer idea of Johnson’s vision for the UK outside the EU when the Integrated Review – heralded as the ‘largest review of the UK’s foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War’– is published. It should provide some much-needed substance to the soundbite ‘Global Britain’ that has become a mainstay of post-Brexit foreign policy talk.
In the meantime, Johnson has sought to re-set the UK’s China policy. Departing from his predecessors Cameron and May, he has ended the ‘Golden Era’ of UK-China relations. During the course of the pandemic Johnson’s views on China have shifted substantially, provoked in part by a realisation of just how reliant the UK is on China – PPE was just one illustration of a far-reaching problem – and a recognition that the UK needs to reduce its dependence on China, even if this means taking a hit economically. We can expect to see a tightening of the rules on foreign takeovers of UK companies in order to protect UK intellectual property, and we are unlikely to see future Chinese investment in UK critical infrastructure such as Hinkley Point nuclear power plant.
If an agreement between the UK and EU is reached it will not be the ‘ambitious, broad, deep and flexible’ partnership set out in the Political Declaration of the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK has opposed discussing a framework for a future EU-UK foreign, security and defence relationship, with Johnson rejecting the offer of an institutional agreement in favour of cooperation on a more flexible, ad hoc basis. But this should not be interpreted as the UK turning its back on Europe – UK cooperation will continue, but in a more informal capacity: cultural and geographic ties mean the EU and UK will remain aligned on many issues. Indeed, much to the fury of the Trump administration, Britain has maintained its stance on the Iran nuclear deal and aligned with France and Germany in the UN. This triumvirate of the most powerful European states, the so-called E3, will likely be the primary vehicle through which cooperation will occur. But the fact that the UK has rejected formal foreign policy alignment with the EU is suggestive of a broader international outlook that will prioritise other formats for cooperation. On Hong Kong, for instance, the UK coordinated a collective response with its five Eyes allies in response to the new National Security Law imposed by Beijing, and in so doing adopted a much firmer line than the EU. Similarly, UK talk of a D-10 alliance which, tellingly includes India, illustrates the different types of diplomatic venues the UK will look to in pursuit of its post-Brexit objectives.
When the integrated security review is completed, stronger ties with India will likely be identified as a top priority. Indeed, at India Global Week, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab voiced his desire to take the relationship between the UK and India to the ‘next level’. From the UK’s perspective, Brexit, Covid-19 and the sharpening of Chinese power now make stronger UK-India ties imperative. As Britain leaves the EU, Johnson’s Brexiteer government needs an open, innovative and dynamic relationship with India to demonstrate that Britain can thrive beyond, in Johnson’s words, the UK’s ‘immediate European hinterland’. As the world looks to find a vaccine for Covid-19, one of our best hopes is the project between Oxford University and India’s Serum Institute: a vaccine developed in the UK and produced in India has the potential to save countless lives. And as China expands its fleet – to the point where it has leapfrogged the US in terms of size and shipbuilding capability – the UK and India have an important role in maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and Indian superiority in the Indian Ocean.
For Boris Johnson, closer ties with India, and in particular securing an FTA – will be central to his ability to deliver a Brexit dividend. Whilst the votes may have been cast, the argument over Britain’s membership of the EU rumbles on. With the Conservatives the de facto party of Brexit, Johnson will need to deliver on the promises he made in 2016 and make Brexit a success if the Conservatives are to win the next election. One of the Leave campaign’s arguments in the EU referendum was that, outside the EU, the UK would be better able to forge trading relationships with the ‘most lucrative and fastest-growing markets in the world’ – something the EU had been unable to achieve, according to Johnson, because of the disparate interests of the other twenty-seven member states. For the UK, India is the logical emerging market to prioritise: India’s already sizeable economy is predicted to be the second largest economy by 2050, and the extensive historic, cultural and human ties between India and the UK are conducive to an enhanced trading relationship.
Trade with India is clearly high on Downing Street’s agenda. Boris Johnson was quick to discard Theresa May’s policy of including international students in immigration targets which acted as a major obstacle to stronger ties. Instead, he has announced a two-year post-study visa for all international students which, alongside the UK’s new meritocratic points-based immigration system which treats EU and non-EU citizens equally, will make it easier than ever for Indian students, academics and skilled workers to live and work in the UK. What makes trade a particularly pressing dimension of the UK-India relationship is that currently after Britain‘s Withdrawal Agreement expires on 31 December 2020 it will have tariff-free access to just 8 percent of total UK trade. Any agreements with Canada, Japan and Mexico represent a pyrrhic victory for this Brexiteer government, as all three already have agreements in place with the EU. Whilst negotiations with the UK’s biggest trading partner – the EU – are still ongoing, the prospects of a deal look increasingly slim. This predicament only makes an agreement with India more important to Johnson’s government.
High-level political commitment is not the only requirement for an FTA, and it would appear the UK and India are a long way off any agreement. The two countries are currently discussing non-tariff barriers to trade, and in July the India-UK Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO) announced that India and the UK will work to ‘establish a specific dialogue’ to explore ways in which tariff barriers can be removed, creating a ‘roadmap’ that ‘could’ lead to a FTA. If and when negotiations on an FTA do begin it will likely take several years for an agreement to be reached – but for Johnson’s government the rewards are high, and, if completed before the EU, would be a huge coup for his Brexiteer government.
Yet the UK will be looking for a comprehensive relationship with India that extends beyond trade to a defence partnership. The UK’s re-assessment of China compels it to look beyond an alliance system fixated on the security of Europe as threats arise elsewhere. It is telling that the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier’s maiden voyage will finish in the Indo-Pacific in 2021, as the UK looks to project its power globally and affirm the right to freedom of navigation from an increasingly assertive China. Before it does so, the Ministry of Defence will be eager to conclude the negotiations aimed at securing a reciprocal logistics agreement with India along the lines of those signed with France and America, and to build on the two countries’ annual naval exercises to help make the UK’s resources go further. Whilst the UK has been diplomatic in its statements on the India-China border clashes, wary of further imperilling UK-China relations, in private the UK and India increasingly converge on the issue of China. This provides new avenues for collaboration, from building cybersecurity resilience to joint research and collaboration on defence technology, such as on the Royal Navy’s integrated electric propulsion system which has attracted the interest of Indian officials eager to maintain Indian superiority in the Indian ocean.