India, UK Have a Roadmap for Defence, Security Ties, but Pursuing It Will Be a Challenge

While the two countries see a convergence of interests in the wider Indo-Pacific region, the roadmap has little to offer on the question of regional stability in India’s immediate neighbourhood.

In a bold move, India and the United Kingdom earlier this month unveiled a 10-year ‘road map’ to guide cooperation, a first for both countries, demonstrating confidence in their bilateral relationship. Defence and security ties were highlighted as one of five key ‘pillars’ to elevate the relationship to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. Strengthened partnership in these areas is a prerequisite for a high degree of mutual trust. But, implementation requires imaginative thinking and sustained political and bureaucratic will on both sides, which will be challenging.

India-UK defence and security ties have been longstanding but low-key with unfulfilled potential. In 2015, the UK-India Defence and International Security Partnership (DISP) attempted to “intensify” cooperation, but implementation has been slow. The UK’s share of India’s defence market, for example, is less than 2% today.

But, the evolving strategic environment provides a unique opportunity to push hard to strengthen and raise the visibility of their defence and security ties. The UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy tilt to the Indo-Pacific and its defence focus on a “maritime partnership” with India provides a convergence of interests with India’s outreach to foreign naval forces as a potential ‘counterweight’ to China and its re-engagement with the UK after a nearly five year long hiatus due to domestic political wrangling over Brexit. Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson have publicly sought a “quantum leap” in bilateral relations.

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In this endeavour, Modi and Johnson, in a joint statement following their virtual summit on May 4, agreed to enhance defence and security cooperation, welcomed the conclusion of a new defence logistics MoU, agreed to work together to support India’s indigenous development of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) (Mark 2) and sought to increase maritime co-operation. This was elaborated in their ambitious India-UK Roadmap to 2030, launched during the summit. In a welcome move, the roadmap widely identified the defence and security components to include maritime cooperation, cybersecurity and counter-terrorism, along with space and cooperation in the nuclear domain (especially on nuclear security and safety, non-proliferation, disarmament and non-proliferation issues).

However, there were no ‘big ticket’ announcements on defence and security, such as the launch of an enhanced trade partnership (paving the way towards a Free Trade Agreement and more than doubling of trade by 2030) and the signing of the Migration and Mobility partnership agreement. But, maritime affairs is set to be at the centre stage of their defence and security cooperation.

Both countries seek a partnership in the western Indian Ocean to promote freedom of navigation and improve maritime cooperation with the launch of a new maritime dialogue, information sharing and mechanisms for operational coordination. The new logistics and training MoUs, along with joint service exercises of greater complexity, facilitate such an engagement, as do bilateral discussion within the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), where the UK is a dialogue partner and India a member.

The first operational deployment of the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and its strike group, currently underway, will include joint naval and air force exercises with India. The UK is to appoint a Liaison Officer at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre for Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR). But, surprisingly, the roadmap does not mention the prospect of cooperation between the two navies in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), an Indian navy initiative, where both are full members.

India-UK 2018 joint naval exercise in Goa. Photo: Twitter.

However, to be meaningful, this new official ‘track 1’ maritime dialogue needs to be ably supported by a policy-relevant ‘track 1.5’ maritime security dialogue between Indian and the UK think tanks that will be broader in scope to encompass the Indo-Pacific region and can raise sensitive issues in a private forum as well as discuss the best means by which to further bilateral collaboration.

Both India and the UK have agreed to work together to develop a “free, open and secure” Indo-Pacific region, underpinned by the rule of law and freedom of navigation and overflight in the international seas. They are closer than ever before in terms of their shared concerns over an increasingly assertive China. But, key differences remain, with both requiring to understand and discuss the other’s intent and priorities in relation to both China and the Indo-Pacific. Such a discussion could also include differing perspectives towards the strategically-located Diego Garcia/British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in the central Indian Ocean, despite the political controversy over sovereignty.

Fluid situation calls for imaginative thinking 

There also needs to be ‘imaginative’ thinking to maximise naval interactions alongside the new programme of joint trilateral exercises; this could include a quadrilateral naval exercise among India, the UK, the US and France. They also need to take advantage of their privileged port access to Oman’s Duqm port, where the UK has built a joint logistics support base, for joint patrols and exercises, including with the US and Oman.

The second significant but ambitious defence component is industrial collaboration on key military technologies through the co-development and co-production of the next generation of combat aircraft, maritime propulsion system and complex weapons. The April 2019 MoU on Defence Technology and Industrial Capability Cooperation (DTICC) was a welcome step in this direction. But, to be successful, there will need to be a ‘leap of faith’ to identify select projects and take them forward in terms of both funding and technological support. However, results are not likely in the short term.

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However, regional security developments will heavily influence advances in defence and security cooperation, far more than any of the other five ‘pillars’ of the roadmap (connecting countries and people, trade and prosperity, climate and health, climate change and mobility and migration). It is therefore awkward that on counter-terrorism cooperation there is only a single rhetorical sentence in the roadmap to take “decisive and concerted actions against globally-proscribed terrorists and terror entities”. Perhaps, this is due to the secrecy of the issue, although the joint statement has no hesitation in elaborating further. Or, perhaps, one side is less inclined or confident to share intelligence than the other; or both are? Yet, both have cooperated on intelligence-led successes in the past; this will be key in the future. Surprisingly, there is no mention of the inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to curb terror financing.

There is also no reference in the roadmap to the requirement for stability in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Perhaps, this suggests a divergence of perspectives on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region after the withdrawal of US/NATO forces in less than four months? If so, this is likely to re-emerge as a major challenge in advancing bilateral defence and security cooperation. The UK’s ongoing efforts at facilitating ties with Pakistan in order to seek stability in Afghanistan appear to India as enabling the Afghan Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan alongside greater Pakistani influence; India remains the only major power in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that has not, yet, recognised the Taliban. Both India and the UK urgently need to raise their level of consultation on Afghanistan.

It must be recognised that the bolstering of defence and security ties does not take place in a vacuum. Among the European Union (EU) countries, France, Germany and the Netherlands have ‘full-fledged’ policies towards the Indo-Pacific, which the UK still lacks. India already has defence logistics MoUs with the US, Australia, Japan, France, South Korea and Singapore. The first EU-India maritime security dialogue took place virtually in January 2021. And, the UK is India’s fifth ‘comprehensive strategic partner’ after Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the UAE.

Finally, both India and the UK need to ensure visible and high-profile implementation on defence and security cooperation within the next 12-18 months, after which the political momentum in India will be lost in preparations for its next general elections in the summer of 2024. An important benchmark will be the visit of India’s cabinet-rank defence minister to the UK within the next 12 months, to mark the first such visit in 20 years.

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is Senior Fellow for South Asia, The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London.