Given the increasing collaborations of Australia and the US with India as QUAD members, the UK’s apparent “India-tilt” — manifested in a series of Indo-British parleys over this month (October) — should quell the apprehensions that the recently formed AUKUS partnership belittles the four-nation alliance.
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Just see the number of such interactions in October. On October 7, the second meeting of the India-UK Joint Working Group on Cyber Capacity Building was held.
The meeting discussed various aspects of cooperation in the area of cyber capacity building and was held under the aegis of the India-UK Framework for Cyber Relationship and in support of the Enhanced Cyber Security partnership as agreed in the “India-UK 2030 Roadmap” during the India-UK Virtual Summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his British counterpart Boris Johnson on May 4.
Joint Military Exercises
On October 8, India and the UK commenced their two-week-long military exercise in Uttarakhand, called the “Ajeya Warrior”. This Exercise, in which about 120 British soldiers participated and which concluded on October 20, was part of an initiative to develop interoperability and sharing of expertise with each other’s weapons, equipment, tactics, and procedures for carrying out joint military operations in a semi-urban environment.
On October 15, the UK’s Carrier Strike Group (CSG), led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailed into the Bay of Bengal in what was said to be a powerful demonstration of the UK-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
In its most substantial port visit to date, the CSG is not only supposed to provide a platform for a wide range of cultural demonstrations and trade and investment initiatives but also will take part in the most demanding exercise ever between the UK and India, incorporating elements from all three military services.
This exercise, named “Konkan Shakti”, will center around aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth with its fifth-generation F-35B fighter jets on India’s western coast and will continue till October 27. So far, India had participated in such exercises only with the United States and Russia. The UK thus becomes the third country in this regard.
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The deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth is said to be a powerful demonstration of the UK’s commitment to deepening its diplomatic, economic, and security-based ties in the Indo-Pacific region where London considers India to be essential in ensuring that the region remains “free, open, inclusive and prosperous”.
British High Commissioner to India Alex Ellis has said that “India is an essential partner for the UK in the Indo-Pacific region. The Carrier Strike Group’s visit demonstrates the deepening of the UK and India’s defense and security partnership.”
And according to First Sea Lord Adm Tony Radakin, “The CSG’s engagement with India showcases the deepening comprehensive strategic partnership. Both the Indian and the Royal navies are blue-water, multi-carrier navies, which places us in a very exclusive club.
Our growing interactions are a testimony to the shared commitment to a rule-based international system, a belief in the values of open trade and in the importance of the freedom of the high seas – a right conveyed on all nations.”
On October 18, the 2nd India-UK Multilateral Dialogue was held in London. Discussions covered issues of mutual interest pertaining to UN reforms, counterterrorism, peacekeeping, and climate action. The two countries exchanged views on the “Commonwealth Strategic Plan” and priorities and agreed to continue to work closely to further deepen their cooperation on multilateral issues.
Foreign Secretary’s Visit
On October 22, Britain’s new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is commencing her three-day- official visit to India. She will hold talks with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on bilateral, regional, and international issues of mutual interest and will travel to Mumbai on October 23 to meet Indian business leaders.
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In fact, there are reports that HMS Queen Elizabeth’s visit has also some commercial overtones. London is keen that India considers cooperation on an “integrated all-electric propulsion system” for India’s indigenous carrier ‘Vishal’ that is in pipeline.
The UK is seen as a leader in these propulsion systems, which are used in the Type 23 frigate and Type 45 destroyer that are part of the carrier strike group. This system is based on two Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbine alternators and four diesel engines.
What all this indicates is that the UK’s tilt towards India is a clear reflection of its overall tilt to the Indo-Pacific, as envisaged in its official publications: ‘March of Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ and the command paper ‘Defence in a Competitive Age‘.
These publications also express the Johnson government’s commitment to “Global Britain”, whose manifestation happens to be the first deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier strike group to the Indo-Pacific in 2021.
The command paper clearly talks of the following:
- Increase Britain’s capacity building and training across the Indo-Pacific, delivered through longer and more consistent military deployments and by better leveraging our existing regional facilities.
- Maximize regional engagement as part of the Carrier Strike Group deployment in 2021.
- Increase Britain’s maritime presence in the Indo- Pacific region through the deployment of Offshore Patrol Vessels from 2021, Littoral Response Group from 2023 and Type 31 frigates later in the decade, including to uphold freedom of navigation.
- Make a bigger and more consistent contribution to the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA).
- Pursue closer defense cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states.
- Guarantee Britain’s regional access through existing UK bases, including British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), access to allied facilities, and the development of an enhanced training facility at Duqm, Oman.
- Deepen and expand defense industrial relationships in the region, including with Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, and India, underpinned by co-operation on science and technology.
- Enhance British programs of exercises, exchanges, and capability development with these key partners.
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According to James Rogers, founding director of the London-based think-tank, Council of Geostrategy, the emphasis on the Indo-Pacific is “a heavy one” and that “India has been identified as a pivotal country, with the likelihood of growing ties between London and New Delhi in the years ahead”.
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It may be noted that when the UK was the sole superpower of the world having a global empire, the British power flowed from its control over the continental and maritime spaces of the region lying along the Indian Ocean and parts of the Western Pacific.
It is now staging a comeback, not as the dominant power but as a global partner, to meet the challenges in a region that is at the “center of intensifying geopolitical competition with multiple potential flashpoints” such as “unresolved territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, nuclear proliferation, climate change and non-state threats from terrorism and serious organized crime’.
The aircraft carrier @HMSQNLZ , which is on its way to India 🇮🇳, is equipped with the fifth generation F-35B Lightning multi-role aircrafts. They are being jointly crewed by the Royal Air Force, @RoyalNavy and the US Marine Corps.
👉 Stay tuned for more #CSG21 updates. pic.twitter.com/bj2f1We5vg
— UK in India🇬🇧🇮🇳 (@UKinIndia) October 16, 2021
Alexander Downer, a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK, has argued that “the single most geopolitical issue in the world today is the rise of China. Everything else pales into insignificance compared to that and for the UK to be a global player it has to accept that Indo-Pacific is the new geopolitical center.
“It gets to the heart of how seriously the UK will be taken in the world. What has kept the peace since 1945 is the international rules-based system, and the UK is one of the countries that write those rules.
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In the South China Sea, there is a real issue of China trying to gain sovereignty through the use of international force and against the tide of international law. The UK needs to resist that. Maybe the UK will sell fewer Bentleys in Shanghai, but that is a fringe issue. This is an issue of war and peace.”
Incidentally, Downer had a prominent role in preparing a report titled “A Very British Tilt”, commissioned by another London-based think-tank, Policy Exchange. This report had stressed the importance of the Indo-Pacific by analyzing its waterways, the Indian and Pacific Oceans, along with the inner seas and vast bays, which it considered to be “the integrated pathways vital to the global economy, linking Europe and the western hemisphere with the world’s workshops.”
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: [email protected]
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