On March 16, the British government finally published the much-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy. In its basic essence, it is the United Kingdom’s roadmap for traversing the world order post-Brexit and marks the biggest shift in Britain’s global foreign and security interests since the end of the Cold War. So what does this mean for India, and what can we learn from such a roadmap?
The foremost implication is that of India’s place in British foreign policy and strategic calculations having been further cemented. Whilst in the past there has been growing rhetoric for a greater corporation and a plethora of symbolic gestures – be it British parliamentary reports backing further corporation, the recent visit by Foreign Secretary Raab and Johnson’s pending tour, as well as the call for the expansion of the G-7 to be the D-10 inclusive of India – the review puts all these sentiments down in practice.
It sets out plans for defence cooperation over the Indian Ocean, a shared partnership in tackling issues pertaining to climate change and global health, and mutual trade and investment in science and technology. Most significant however is the Enhanced Trade Partnership, a comprehensive trade deal that will come to form the bedrock of Indo-British relations.
Some substantial steps towards such an agreement can be expected to take place during Johnson’s visit to India in April. That he has chosen India to visit as his first international trip after Brexit only furthers the messaging. Underlying all this, for good measure, is that the British High Commission in India will become the largest British mission globally in terms of diplomatic staff.
It is no news that Britain considers India to be a key partner in its post-European Union foreign policy calculations. Yet the focus is given to India in rhetoric (after China, India is the most mentioned country in the report), as well as in actual policy, is a tool India must leverage.
Be it for strengthening trade relations for mutual economic benefit, cooperation in developing key strategic defence capabilities, or an ever-handy counterbalance to unruly neighbours (yes, you China), this new path being forged by “Global” Britain has great potential of being mutually beneficial.
Bilateral relations aside, another opportunity for cooperation comes in the form of Britain’s return to the “East of Suez”. The Indo-Pacific tilt is a three-pronged pivot, increasing Britain’s security footprint in the region, strengthening economic ties with regional powers and establishing strong political relations via regional forums (ASEAN essentially). The proof is in the pudding, and Britain is delivering at once. The Royal Navy’s new flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will be deployed in the Indo-Pacific with an accompanying strike group later this year. That this will give Beijing more than a gnawing itch is a forgone conclusion. For India, it will serve as a welcome and complementary effort to its engagement with Quad in containing China.
However, it is important to note the limitation of British capabilities in this regard. Whilst Johnson and alike have tried to revive the glory days of British naval mastery in their grandiose rhetoric about the deployment, it would be a grave error to have such a perception.
Make no mistake, the Royal Navy has very limited capabilities to operate effectively in the Indo-Pacific region. Apart from the obvious (and great) deficit in naval numbers and the present lack of a military-industrial base capable to compensate, there are some serious shortcomings in even the equipment being deployed. Chief among them is the F-35, which solely makes up the air wings of the new carriers. With its innumerable development quirks and astronomical cost, it has seriously hampered the efficacy of the new carriers. The latter factor especially has meant that Britain cannot even afford to get enough planes for both her new carriers.
Nonetheless, what is lacking in strategic hard power can be made up for in long-term diplomatic overtures. Rather than chasing the rather quixotic (and might I add terribly expensive) objective of a resurgence in naval strength, Britain would spend its resources wisely by investing in economic relations with Indo-pacific nations and ensuring admittance into the ASEAN as a dialogue partner. Put altogether, Britain’s soft power influence and limited hard power capabilities can come of important use for India and their shared allies in rising up to the challenge China poses in the region.
Question of China
Yet when it came to addressing the most anticipated issue, that of the question of China, the review fell short by most expectations. It was Russia, rather than China, that was deemed to Britain’s most serious threat. Whilst acknowledging China’s exponential rise clubbed with its authoritarian character is proving to be a potent mix, the report propounded caution towards her rather than actually presenting a challenge. This strategic hesitance can most certainly be linked to Britain’s consideration of economic ties with China being essential in the economic plans post-Brexit.
Whilst it would be delusional to believe in the need for a total economic decoupling (as some rather hawkish conservative backbenchers advocate for), it would also be foolhardy to believe one can have strategic independence in the ability to address a threat if the threat itself forms a key pillar in your larger scheme for international trade.
There is no doubt that Britain will need to carry out a precarious balance, and it is here that India and other allies must step in. Creating an informal trade network of liberal democracies is one way in which these powers could make a gradual move away from excessive Sino-reliance. Do not do this quick enough, and one only has to see Australia’s consequences of being over-reliant on an unreliable state actor.
For India, this exhibition of hesitation is an important lesson. Whilst harsh strategic language vis-a-vis China is pleasing to our ears here at home, what happens in practice is what really matters.
There is no doubt that there is a growing consensus among leading democratic powers over the rules of engagement required to deal with China. However, slipping into a false sense of security from having “allies” – who may or may not react strongly in our favour, especially on bilateral issues – would be foolhardy. The border predicament is a foremost example of this, and that additional foreign soft power would enable us to suddenly solve it is not only a whimsical thought but is something that should be unwanted. As British statesman Palmerston once said, “Nations have no eternal allies, and have no perpetual enemies. Only their interests are perpetual and eternal.”
Strategic and foreign policy implications aside, there are two key facets that India should take away from the undertaking of such a review. First is the need for synergy between academia and government in the formulation of defence and security policy. The review was not led by a minister or civil servant, but by 40-year old Professor John Bew of King’s College London.
A co-director of the Centre for Grand Strategy, King’s College London, Bew is interestingly a historian by training. His selection or the nature of his academic field is no coincidence. The importance of history in policy formulation is widely known, and a great many diplomats and politicians have all credited historical perspective as being a key differential in astute decision making. Henry Kissinger, among others, remarked that his historical knowledge and the ability to apply it had been the most useful tool in his career.
Indian policymakers too should strive to not only integrate historical perspective but also place greater weightage on its rich plethora of academics when deliberating and deciding on matters pertaining to foreign policy and strategic issues.
The second takeaway is exploring whether India too should formulate a policy document along similar lines. The review in Britain was a holistic plan for the strengthening of its place in the world order.
This was not only outlined via military means, but by industrial development, economic ties, and political manoeuvres. In effect, this was Britain’s Grand Strategy. Whilst there are many detractors of the concept, identifying and outlining a nation’s Grand Strategy has many benefits.
In a democratic nation with constant political vacillation, it provides for a constant conceptual framework for policymakers to work with. More importantly, it forces elected officials to undertake long term decision making and disengage themselves from domestic political concerns (read elections), something that is integral for mature strategic thinking. So, maybe it is time for India to consider its grand strategy?
Ranvijay Singh is a student at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is an Engelsberg Applied History Fellow at the Centre for Grand Strategy.