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Beyond the Summitry: David Cameron in India

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 03, 2010

    The Indo-UK strategic partnership got a new tag after the completion of David Cameron’s visit to India. The joint press statement after the culmination of the visit highlights ‘An Enhanced Partnership for the Future’. On the eve of the visit, other tags have also been in circulation like, ‘new’, ‘special’, ‘aspirational’ etc. though the UK-India relationship does not really require any. The aim of the visit was ostensibly trade. However in a post-WikiLeaks world, issues like international terrorism, its epicentre and chief protagonists have quite naturally been raised. The forthright statement of Cameron in Bengaluru on terror export has not only become a diplomatic issue between Islamabad and London but a foreign policy debate in British domestic politics as well.

    Objectively, what the new British Prime Minister has warned about is not a major policy statement from the British side. In December 2008 Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown noted in Pakistan the fact that three-fourths of terrorist plots in the UK emanated from Pakistan. Has the situation changed radically in the UK now? After the fifth anniversary of the July 7 bombings in London and despite heightened vigil and numerous anti-terrorist measures and Counter-Terrorism initiatives in the last few years, the current threat level remains ‘severe’. According to the British Home Office it means that ‘a terrorist attack is highly likely’. What has changed in between is the change of guard at 10, Downing Street, the increase in deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan, the urge of exit after the military surge, as well as finding moderates in the terrorist ranks. But the threat originating from the ‘epicentre’ or ‘crucible’ of terror remains the same.

    Similarly, in conformity with the contemporary ‘emergence of India and China’ literature, the Conservative Election Manifesto announced to build strong relations with ‘rising powers like China and India’. However this was also the same with the Opposition Labour Manifesto which identified these two countries as ‘emerging countries’ along with Brazil. Actually in 2006 the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) came out with a vision document, ‘Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: The UK’s International Priorities’, in which the remarkable economic growth and the demographic dividend of both these countries were underscored. Nuclear commerce and defence deals are highlighted as the main outcomes of Cameron’s visit to India, though the British eagerness to enter the Indian market before other significant players, also has to be considered. Therefore tagging the present Indo-UK strategic partnership as ‘new’ or ‘special’ is at present premature until any substantial and recognisable element has been brought.

    What is new for the observers of British foreign policy after the new coalition government came into power, is the endeavour to reposition Britain in a fast-changing global scenario. Be it the recent speech of David Cameron in Ankara where he strongly advocated Turkish membership for the EU, or the speech of the new British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in which he defined four major changes necessitating a revisit of British foreign policy. Of course, the presentation, content and place of these policy announcements have attracted criticism and evoked controversy. The policy changes have also been criticised as being elitist, perfunctory or short-sighted. But these should also be deemed as attempts of formulating ‘a distinctive British Foreign policy’ breaking from the earlier Labour paradigm.

    It also appears that the new government has started serious rethinking of the role of the UK in the EU. The first statement is this regard was the text of Coalition Negotiations Agreements of May 2010 in which some significant announcements have been made, like the UK would not join the Euro during the current legislative period or would press to have only one seat of the European Parliament in Brussels. A serious rethinking on the EU can partially be attributed to the influence of Cameron’s Liberal Democrats deputy, Nicholas Clegg, who had an earlier stint as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and with a trans-European personal background. The appointment of David Lidington from the Conservatives, as the Europe Minister, may also be considered as a message to continental Europe. However personalities apart, it seems that not only does the new British government want to make the bitter European disunity on the eve of the Iraq War as past and break its own ‘Euro-sceptic’ stereotype, but would like to seriously influence the future shape of the EU and its Common Security & Defence Policy (CSDP). Undoubtedly the present British support for the EU membership of Turkey would not be realised soon as this definitely needs the nod from Paris and Berlin. But if Cameron’s proposal has to be taken at face value and not as an empty rhetoric, it indicates that the UK has a different strategic view of the future shape of the EU which the UK needs to articulate in a very comprehensive way in the months ahead. If the increasing British interest in the EU, in addition to the emerging powers, has to be sustained then the UK has to considerably increase its manpower not only in the European External Action Service (EEAS) but in Beijing, Brasilia and New Delhi as well. At a time of austerity measures, it means that the UK also has to seriously readjust and relocate its resources in its foreign policy structure.

    As already highlighted that Cameron’s remarks on Pakistan has created a huge controversy in the British media and in Pakistan which cancelled a high-level visit of an ISI delegation to the UK. Reactions from the British commentariat on Cameron range from the less-charitable to simple expletives. The concern of these Western analysts is understandable as they prefer a quick and smooth exit from Afghanistan without a proper roadmap ahead. But until then, the punditry believes, Pakistan has to be placated. India has also been blamed for its ‘threatening’ approach towards Pakistan. As if should India not demand the prosecution of the masterminds of 26/11 on Pakistani soil, Pakistan would eventually comply. Though right now the present Pak-British relationship might face some unpleasantness, this is not very unprecedented also. Pak-British security cooperation would definitely be restored and made as closer as possible and that too primarily at the behest of the UK because not only British security but the European security today is linked with Pakistan. Consequently it is to be seen how the new UK government presents its new approach towards Pakistan, its power structure and the chief protagonists behind the international terrorism. Beyond the summitry this development needs to be minutely observed.