The “Global Britain” concept and UK policy toward India

Testimony
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Foreign Affairs Committee, House of Commons, United Kingdom

The “Global Britain” concept and UK policy toward India

This submission addresses the call for evidence regarding the following questions: “What are India’s perceptions of the Global Britain strategy?”; What should be the main objectives for the UK’s future relationship with India?”; “How effective are the FCO and other parts of Government in building effective relations with India and capitalising on shared objectives and values?; and “What impact does the UK’s visa regime have on our relationship with India? Does it help facilitate the type of relationship the Government seeks with India?” 

Summary of evidence

2. This evidence is in many ways an update to that on “British engagement with India following the EU referendum”, submitted to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee “Implications of leaving the EU for the UK's role in the world” inquiry in July 2016.1 The key points of that evidence relevant to this inquiry constituted, firstly, a need to rebalance the UK approach toward Asia in the direction of a closer partnership with India, and away from the “Osborne Doctrine” preference for prioritizing Beijing as London’s Asian economic partner of choice. Secondly, the clear requirement for a more coordinated UK Government approach toward India, and a reconciliation of the division between a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) effort to develop British influence with India through soft power efforts and economic engagement, and a Home Office-led view of India through a general global migration reduction imperative. A following recommendation was that this reconciliation be weighted in favour of the FCO perspective of India, to enable the formation and maintenance of a strong post-Brexit UK-India strategic and economic relationship, and at a time when other European and international states are equally competing to become partners of choice for New Delhi. 3. Each of these key issues still remain unresolved at the time of writing, and indeed are now forming sharpening problems that are beginning to visibly damage UK-India relations. A former UK High Commissioner to India from 2007-2011 has stated in Indian national media that failure to progress on these topics has now generated a “lack of trust” in the bilateral relationship.2 4. The “Global Britain” concept has been publicly promoted by UK Government ministers since June 2016, and has been concisely summarised as “reinvesting in our relationships, championing the rules-based international order and demonstrating that the UK is open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage”. Toward this end, the UK Government concludes that “We need to use government assets more cohesively and efficiently to maintain our global standing”.3 This evidence offers recommendations for how the UK Government can better align its India policy with these stated aspirations.

5. UK Government statements and diplomatic activities still indicate that London is more attentive to the health of its relationship with Beijing than with New Delhi. At a time when Asian and Western states are raising public objections to the increasingly visible debt burdens placed by China upon Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) participant states, and accordant growth in Chinese political leverage over their foreign policies, the UK has not evolved a coherent stance on BRI. India is one of the foremost public opponents of the initiative, criticising its impacts upon state sovereignty and suggesting alternative global infrastructure funding arrangements. The inability of the UK Government to “more cohesively” adopt and communicate a single policy toward BRI limits the extent to which its officials can have credible discussions with their Indian counterparts on one of the most significant strategic developments of the 21st century. 6. The issue of British visa treatment of Indian nationals has worsened since 2016, and is now at the forefront of bilateral engagements. This issue is now the principal block to progress on a UK-India free trade agreement (FTA) following Britain’s departure from the EU. The UK attitude toward this issue has been to dismiss the valid Indian concerns as overstated or factually incorrect, to utilise a flawed migration estimate (the International Passenger Survey) as the basis for calculating the current number of Indian visa overstayers in the UK, and to differentially treat Chinese and Indian nationals in terms of visa requirements and the associated degree of the British “open, outward-looking” stance toward these states, as reflected in its immigration policy. 7. The Home Office decided to exclude India from a list of states, including China, granted an easing of documentation requirements for Tier-4 (Student) visas in June 2018. This has created a perception in India that the UK is singling out prospective Indian students, and the inherent value of their economic and cultural contributions to British prosperity, as more of a problem to be contained than a valuable and finite global resource to be actively recruited. 8. The UK must, at the minimum, offer the same visa requirements to Indian nationals as the currently more favourable treatment extended to Chinese nationals, if it is to concretise its commitment to the bilateral relationship with India. Indeed, India is a fellow champion of the “rules-based international order” that is core to the “Global Britain” vision. This new policy would also help rebuild trust in the UK-India relationship, and remove a significant barrier to a bilateral FTA. Global Britain, China and India 9. UK Government statements and conduct strongly indicate that the May government is continuing the “Osborne Doctrine” approach, adopted in September 2015, of prioritising the solicitation of Chinese economic investment in Britain as a core, if not foremost, Asia policy goal. Attendant elements of this strategy include downplaying the level of British concern communicated to China regarding its ongoing human rights and sovereignty violations, and easing the bureaucratic and regulatory paths for Chinese nationals and economic initiatives to reach the UK. 

10. In its memorandum of March 2018 to the House of Commons “Global Britain” inquiry, intended to provide content regarding the policy enactment of the “Global Britain” concept, the FCO positioned China at the forefront of its section detailing Indo-Pacific diplomatic goals and achievements. This section devoted three full paragraphs to highlighting the importance of China to UK prosperity and more general global security. Significantly, it included a statement that “We welcome the opportunities provided by China’s Belt and Road Initiative to further prosperity and sustainable development across Asia and the wider world”.4 By contrast, India was accorded a brief two paragraphs that was structured to follow this discussion of China. 11.The BRI is placing substantial debt burdens on participant states like Malaysia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. These conditions permit Chinese political leverage over their foreign policy decisionmaking. An authoritative recent report on Chinese internal views of BRI concluded that its officials and experts close to the government view its importance more in terms of obtaining this strategic leverage than realizing the economic gains of its actual energy, transport and logistical network investment projects.5 Beijing has also recently unilaterally extended security guarantees to all BRI projects, creating a pretext for possible stationing of Chinese military forces in and around global project sites.6 12. India has been one of the most vocal global opponents of BRI for these reasons, and the additional fact that elements of its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) sub-project run through Kashmir, which India claims as its own territory. By contrast, it is difficult to determine the UK position on BRI. A visit by Prime Minister May to Beijing from January 31 to February 2, 2018, was reported as being coloured by her resistance to “a Chinese push for a formal endorsement of its $900bn Belt and Road Initiative”, with this rejection “suggesting Britain still has concerns about China’s political objectives for the huge infrastructure project”.7 Nevertheless, this was followed in March 2018 by the above FCO text on BRI, which reads as a full endorsement. 13. UK messaging on BRI shifted again in the UK-India joint statement issued during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the UK in April 2018. The statement text appeared to reflect May’s personal concerns with BRI as of February 2018, which align with the welldocumented position of India: “India and the UK acknowledged the importance of connectivity in today’s globalised world. They underlined that connectivity initiatives must be based on the key principles of good governance, rule of law, openness and transparency; should follow social and environmental standards, principles of financial responsibility, accountable debt-financing practices; and must be pursued in a manner that respects international obligations, standards, best practice and delivers tangible benefits”.

14. However, this was furthermore followed in May 2018 by a commentary by a UK Department of International Trade minister, which made no mention of the above concerns with BRI and instead read as an unambiguous full endorsement of the initiative. This new language asserted that “For the UK, BRI offers enormous commercial opportunities, because our country has a strong track record of delivering excellent infrastructure that supports economic growth and development; increasing connectivity and trade, reducing costs, and improving access to public services like education and health. These principles lie at the heart of China’s plans...That’s why we intend to position London as the premier global centre for funding and facilitating BRI projects”.8 15. An additional area of concern to India is the exclusive extensive Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. During May’s visit to Beijing, she was reported to have privately criticized Beijing’s uneven adherence to “international trading rules” (most likely its continued practice of dumping), and “the deterioration of human rights in Hong Kong”.9 The South China Sea issue was not reported as being among this list of concerns that the UK raised regarding Chinese behaviour. This runs counter to the “Global Britain” core principle of “championing the rules-based international order”, as well as undercutting the value that Indian diplomats can ascribe to the April 2018 UK joint statement language that “A secure, free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific is in the interests of India, the UK and the international community.” To strengthen its relationship with India, and align the practice of UK diplomacy with its expressed principles in the “Global Britain” concept, the UK must adopt a more coherent position on BRI. More broadly, the UK must begin to publicly and privately treat the Indian partnership as of at least equal importance to that with China. 

Enacting an “open, outward-looking” approach in the UK relationship with India

16. As the Brexit date looms closer, the UK is under increasing pressure to demonstrate it can secure significant free trade agreements outside the EU, and progress toward their conclusion. An India FTA has been one of the key goals of the Department for International Trade. However, the consistent Indian conditioning of a FTA upon UK visa liberalisation for Indian nationals has meant a continuing impasse in the discussions on this topic. The British refusal to consider visa liberalisation is now becoming not just the major theme of the FTA talks, but a growing strain within the broader UK-India relationship. 17. My previous submission discussed at length the clash between the FCO-led soft power efforts to attract Indian nationals, economic investment, and cultural interchange, and the Home Office-led approach of erecting bureaucratic barriers to such initiatives in the name of immigration reduction. Since this submission, the Home Office has simplified the Tier-4 (student) visa application process for nationals of states including Bahrain, China, Indonesia, and the Maldives, but left in place the more restrictive requirements for Indian nationals. The Chief Operating Officer of the UK-India Business Council, discussing these developments in an interaction with the UK Parliament All Party Parliamentary Group for International Students in September 2018, underlined that Indian students and corporations were adopting “a perception that Britain doesn’t want them to study and work here”.10 18.UK efforts to dispel this perception have not been helped by the recent stances and remarks of senior policymakers and officials. Bilateral negotiations leading up to the April 2018 Modi UK visit featured Indian pressure for the UK to announce that it would extend to India its two-year business traveler visa scheme with China.11 This was eventually rejected by the UK, and not mentioned in the joint statement. 19. Downing Street has linked potential Indian visa liberalisation with a more robust Indian commitment to verifying possible Indian overstayers in the UK. A UK demand for a restrictive 15-day time limit to positively verify the data for an Indian individual was rejected by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, with Downing Street refusing to consider a longer time period.12 20. Indeed, there is a growing sense in India that the UK is not negotiating in good faith in these FTA discussions. UK Home Officer border check data indicates that 4,600 Indian nationals were overstaying their visa as of 2016-17, within a state of a total population of 66 million in 2017.13 However, in talks with India, the UK selects a much higher calculation of 100,000 Indian visa overstayers, drawn instead from the International Passenger Survey (IPS), as the baseline number. A British immigration and economics expert has stated that “it has long been obvious that it (the IPS) has been overestimating student net migration from outside the EU; it now seems likely that this has translated into an overestimate of non-EU migration overall”.14 In June 2018, the Indian High Commissioner to the UK highlighted the level of Indian frustration with the British policy of conditioning FTA talks upon stronger Indian deportation commitments, and these commitments organised around a higher and less accurate baseline number of Indian visa overstayers of those available from the UK’s own data sources. The High Commissioner publicly remarked that “I am sure there are many (overstayers) but where did this figure of 100,000 come from?”15

21. A further indication that the UK does not take these Indian perceptions, including their import for the health of the future bilateral relationship, seriously are the remarks of the UK High Commissioner to India in June 2018. The High Commissioner dismissed Indian concerns with UK visa discrimination between Chinese and Indian students by flippantly remarking that the Indian government had not yet approached him personally regarding this issue.16 22. At a minimum, the UK must reduce the damage being done to its relationship with India as a result of this policy approach centered around immigration reduction, and the clear British assumption, reflected in policy, that Chinese students and human capital are more welcome in the UK than those from India. Starting points will be to harmonise India visa regulations with that of China, utilise the more accurate UK border check data in calculating visa overstayers, and indeed reduce the importance of visa overstaying as a condition in light of the necessityfor the UK to rapidly conclude trade agreements once it has departed the EU. This approach will also be more characteristic of an “open, outward-looking” approach that is expressed as a principle of the “Global Britain” concept.

Conclusion

Urgent reconsiderations of UK policies on the Belt and Road Initiative, South China Sea, and toward a prospective India FTA are required for the “Global Britain” concept to have real credibility in India. In some areas, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and South China Sea, a basic UK cross-government coherent position is required. With regard to the FTA issue, the UK Government should not problematise what the UK-India April joint statement terms the “living bridge” as a major issue in the talks, and especially when the UK does not do so with China. As the Committee on Foreign Affairs observes, “the (India) relationship (is) an important test case of the Global Britain strategy”, and the world is watching how the UK navigates this relationship as an indication of its character as a post-Brexit global actor.

This was written testimony submitted to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, UK. Read the testimony here