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British Strategic Vision of 2015: Focus on India and China

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 31, 2006

    The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of the United Kingdom has come out with a White Paper on British international strategic priorities for the next ten years. British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, while launching the sixty-page vision statement titled "Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: The UK's International Priorities" also delivered a lecture on this occasion at a conference of senior British diplomats in London on March 28, 2006.

    The strategy paper actually attempts to update and incorporate the changes and challenges faced by the UK in the last three years. The earlier White Paper of 2003 was the first of its kind and outlined Britain's international priorities. In the intervening period the UK experienced some major challenges, domestic as well as international, and held some very important assignments. To be precise, the year 2005 was quite eventful for the UK - it held the annual G8 presidency; national elections took place in May; the July 7 terrorist attacks in the London Metro claimed 52 lives and together with the foiled attacks on July 21 marked a watershed in contemporary British history; and Britain held the half-yearly European Union (EU) presidency in the second-half of 2005.

    It is against this background that the latest vision statement of the UK should be seen. It sums up its recent experiences and underpins Britain's multidirectional, multi-pronged and multilateral approach to address current challenges. Most importantly the document acknowledges the 'unprecedented' economic growth of India and China. In stark contrast to the 2003 document, in which neither Asian nation was given importance, this document deals at length with future projections about their economies, GDP, demographic trends and energy requirements. While both India and China keep appearing in the document, India, being the 'largest democracy', gets the special emphasis of a strategic partner of the UK.

    In its entirety the FCO document presents itself as a combination of national, European as well as transatlantic approaches. While bilateral relationships still remain vital for the UK, approaches at the level of EU are designated as the 'most important multilateral commitment'. The EU-3, i.e. Britain, France and Germany, is given due importance, indicating that in future they would undertake major assignments like the on-going dealings with Iran. The paper also recognises nine strategic priorities including, terrorism and proliferation of WMD, organised crime, conflict prevention, illegal immigration, sustainable development and environment protection, etc. As far as perceived major threats for the UK are concerned the British strategy follows the European Security Strategy adopted in December 2003.

    The diplomatic focus of the vision statement seems to be echoing the trend established by the United States in recent months. It may be recalled that Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State in her speech on "Transformational Diplomacy" delivered at Georgetown University on January 18, 2006, highlighted discrepancies in the posting of American diplomats in various parts of the world. Rice underscored the fact that both India and Germany host the same number of US diplomats though the former has a larger population. She added that the US would reallocate its diplomats from Europe to India and China. The British Strategy Paper also follows this American reasoning. At present 29 per cent of Britain's total diplomatic strength is in Europe, while 13 per cent of British diplomats are posted in South Asia and 15 per cent in the Asia-Pacific region. The Strategy Paper is unambiguous that in conformity with future trends, the UK would increase its diplomatic strength in India. In fact, Jack Straw, in his speech, actually stated that the British diplomatic strength in India has already been increased by 16 per cent in the last two years.

    Current and future projections using certain key parameters for the growth of Indian and Chinese economies deserve to be noted here. While China and India remain the top two in the growing population chart for the next twenty years, Europe stands first in terms of its ageing population showing an increasingly old age dependency ratio of more than 30 per cent in 2025. In the area of energy consumption, the US and Canada would be the largest consumers in 2030, while India would come fifth after China and the EU. But in terms of per capita GDP, as the Vision Statement illustrates, India - though a major global economy - will come only after the US, EU, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Mexico, China and Brazil. Some salient trade figures may also be cited: after USA and China, the UK is India's third largest partner. Bilateral trade during January-September 2005 was around US$ 7.4 billion, but this is only one per cent of global annual British trade, and in comparison with UK-China trade it is only one-fifth. As both India and the UK are aware of the lack in optimal exploitation of the trade potential despite the continuous increase in trade volumes, bilateral trade is expected to increase in the coming years. The document also refers to, as challenges for both India and China, the perilous path of balancing reform measures and maintaining parity in development across their various regions. In comparison with China, India's democratic traditions and rule of law are upheld as positives and marking the fundamentals of vibrant Indo-UK relations.

    Lastly, under the rubric of "Active Diplomacy", India gets special mention as the source country for the largest number of visas issued by the UK as well as in key areas of cooperation like defence, police and crime, reversion of illegal immigrants of Indian origin, etc. It is therefore more than likely that bilateral engagement between India and the UK - not only in trade relations but in other crucial areas as well - would be more intensified in the coming years. This must however be considered within the ambit of the EU-India strategic partnership as well as the Joint Action Plan adopted at the 7th EU-India Summit in 2005 under the British presidency. Apart from the EU-India strategic partnership, India has also been maintaining bilateral strategic partnerships with other major European nations. The continent has observed the recently concluded Indo-US strategic partnership with interest. The current European trend, be it at the governmental level or in think tanks, is that the EU should take its strategic partnership with India seriously. European analysts complain about the apathy shown by Indian experts towards the EU and the Union's perceived insignificance in the global scenario as a military bloc. In the coming years, it remains to be seen how the Indo-UK strategic partnership as well as Indo-EU would evolve in contrast to the newly concluded Indo-US Strategic partnership.