NEW DELHI - India and the United Kingdom have agreed to deepen defence ties and explore joint production of defence equipment, including partnering on new fighter jet technology.
This was announced during British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to India.
Mr Johnson, who is facing questions at home over his leadership as a result of lockdown parties at 10 Downing Street, received a warm welcome when he arrived on Thursday (April 21).
The effort to deepen defence ties comes at a time when the West has been seeking to wean India away from its dependence on Russia, the South Asian country’s largest defence partner.
“The threats of autocratic coercion have grown even further therefore it is vital we deepen our cooperation including our shared interest in keeping the Indo-Pacific open and free,” Mr Johnson said at a joint press briefing following the talks with his Indian counterpart, Mr Narendra Modi, on Friday.
The British prime minister, who has been keen to woo India, said the two countries had agreed “on a new and expanded Defence and Security Partnership.”
Britain also announced an India-specific open general export licence “slashing delivery times for defence procurement.”
“We’ve agreed to work together to meet new threats across land, sea, air, space and cyber, including partnering on new fighter jet technology, maritime technologies to detect and respond to threats in the oceans,” said Mr Johnson.
The promise of the transfer of defence technology was welcomed by New Delhi which has been keen to modernise its military and boost defence production.
Ukraine remained an area of divergence between the two sides as India continues to adhere to a neutral position on the conflict, resisting Western pressure to condemn Russia for invading its neighbour.
“The position on Russia that the Indians have historically is well known. They are not going to change that, of course, that’s true,” Mr Johnson said at the joint briefing.
“But they can see what is going on and there is an increasing appetite to do more with the United Kingdom.”
Ahead of his visit, the British prime minister on April 17 tweeted that “it is vital that democracies and friends stick together” to take on “autocratic states. Last month, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was also in New Delhi on a visit described as part of “a wider diplomatic push” on the Ukraine crisis.
Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla disclosed that Mr Johnson did not exert any pressure on the Indian side during the talks.
“Ukraine was discussed. There was no pressure . PM Johnson gave his views on Ukraine. PM Modi gave our perspective,” Mr Shringla said, pointing out that Mr Modi reiterated the Indian position for an end to the Ukraine conflict through diplomacy and dialogue.
“We are on the side of peace,” he said.
On defence, the Indian minister said the two sides discussed co-development and co-production, including that of electric propulsion fighter jet engines and complex radars, as well as export of defence items to third countries.
Britain’s focus on deepening ties with India has sharpened following Brexit as it looks beyond the European Union to foster and deepen ties with fast-growing, emerging economies.
Against the backdrop of growing unease with the rise of China, Britain said in a foreign policy review last year that it was looking to “pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific” and that it recognises the importance of powers in the region such as India.
Similarly, India too has been keen on deepening defence ties with Britain and increasing British investment. Both countries aim to conclude a free trade agreement by the end of the year.
There also appears to be a softening of position on the UK side on the Indian demand for easier access to visas for skilled workers and students.
Mr Johnson told the media ahead of his arrival in India that he had always “been in favour of talented people coming to this country.”
Mr Modi noted that India had concluded free trade agreements with Australia and the United Arab Emirates and wanted to clinch one with the UK.
“Teams from both countries are working and there is good progress since talks started. We have decided to try and conclude the agreement by the end of the year,” said Mr Modi.
Mr Johnson, who was in Gujarat, Mr Modi’s home state, on Thursday, expressed a desire for the agreement to be concluded by Deepavali, the festival of lights, in late October.
The two sides also discussed clean energy initiatives including collaboration to reduce dependence on imported hydrocarbons and adopt cheaper, more sustainable home-grown alternatives, said Mr Johnson.
Analysts viewed the British leader’s visit as significant, saying that it has paved the way for future collaboration.
“The UK today has greater clarity in terms of appreciation of the threat posed by China. India values in a sense to have the UK as a partner in the Indo-Pacific along with the US and other major partners like Australia and Japan. The signing of the Aukus (the security pact between Australia, the UK and the US) is a reflection of how entrenched the UK is in Indo-Pacific politics and security issues,” said Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan at the Observer Research Foundation.
“The visit will further enhance India-UK security and defence ties.”