New India-UK defence logistics pact on cards reflects policy shift in London

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India and the UK are in the final stages of agreeing on a key defence logistics pact, reflecting a policy shift in London as the Boris Johnson government finalises its one-in-a-generation Integrated Review of Britain’s foreign policy, defence and international development in the post-Brexit world.

Experts say the MoU is part of a new approach to India and Asia that will be outlined in the high-level review to be released in November, as the UK prepares for a future outside the European Union from January 1.

The review, intended to take into account the current and projected domestic and global context in 2030, was commissioned by Johnson as a policy-led, evidence-driven, whole-of-government process, going beyond the parameters of a traditional defence and security reviews.

The official announcement on Wednesday that the ‘Defence Logistics MoU’ is in the final stages of agreement between New Delhi and London is part of several defence-related deliverables in the pipeline. It is seen as London beginning to move beyond attempts to ‘balance’ relationships.

Avinash Paliwal, an international relations expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies, said on Friday: “A defence logistics pact between India and the UK is significant for multiple reasons. Apart from the military strategic value of such a pact, especially in the IOR (Indian Ocean Rim), it signals a foreign policy shift on London’s part on the China and Pakistan questions”.

“For long, the UK has tried to balance relations between China and the US, as well as India and Pakistan. Such a defence logistics pact affords clarity of intent i.e. the UK is increasingly wary of China, and is unlikely to let Pakistan’s sensitivities hinder a truly strategic partnership with India (something that has been the case for many years).”

Indicating that India would emerge as a key theme in the UK’s post-Brexit worldview, Jan Thompson, acting high commissioner of the UK to India, said in a recent webinar that India will “come through as a very strong theme” in the Integrated Review.

The review would “underscore the centrality of India to Britain’s view of the world,” Jo Johnson, member of the House of Lords and former minister, told the webinar organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Vivekananda International Foundation.

Among the key drivers of change over the next decade identified by the review is “a shift in the international order, marked by intensifying great power competition and a shift in the world’s economic centre of gravity towards Asia.”

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, senior fellow at IISS, said: “The UK’s once-in-a-generation security review with a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, growing convergence on China and the recent government-to-government arms transfer pact, set the political context for boosting bilateral defence links and maritime security cooperation in the western Indian Ocean”.

Outstanding issues in the bilateral relationship include illegal migration, anti-India elements operating from UK soil and the long-held perception in New Delhi of London’s pro-Pakistan tilt. But there are indications that some of these seemingly intractable issues may not hinder India emerging as a “very strong theme” in the review.

Paliwal added: “To be clear, the UK would not want to jeopardise bilateral relations with Pakistan given the sizeable Pakistani diaspora in the UK and Rawalpindi’s support for London’s counter-terrorism efforts. But, for a change, London has begun looking at India from a security-strategic perspective, instead of a purely economic lens.”

“The defence logistics pact (unlikely to be challenged by the Labour Party under Keir Starmer’s leadership, who has also ameliorated the party’s stand on Kashmir more to India’s liking), will set a new more collaborative tone between India and the UK, and help reducing mistrust in New Delhi about the UK’s ‘pro-Pakistan’ inclinations in the long run,” he added.

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