UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously described himself as a “son-in-law of India”, owing to his former wife’s Indian mother. According to reports, he is a self-proclaimed Indophile. While in office, he has also put on record his fervent Sinophilia. But can he really be both?
Perhaps. I am sure it is perfectly possible for one person to have a profound attachment to the people and culture of both India and China. Although I suspect in the Johnson’s case, such words are motivated by a desire to be popular and increase trade with as many countries across the world as possible. A dive into the Prime Minister’s past speeches and newspaper columns would probably reveal a whole host of nations who he has declared a special affinity towards. Yet even if his love of all things Indian and all things Chinese is sincere, when it comes to diplomacy, a choice must be made. The choice must be India.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, views in the UK towards China have hardened, especially on the government’s backbenches. Over the past few months prominent Conservative parliamentarians have demanded tougher measures against Beijing for its treatment of Uighurs, and other ethnic minorities, in Xinjiang. On several occasions these rebels have been remarkably close to defeating the government in parliamentary votes and have, they claim, in the process exacted concessions.
In fairness, the UK government has shown some resolve too. In response to serious human rights violations in Xinjiang, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, has spoken out at the UN Human Rights Council. Subsequently, in coordination with allies, some Chinese Communist Party officials carrying out these crimes have been sanctioned. On Hong Kong, London has also rallied its allies to condemn the draconian National Security Law’s imposition, whilst simultaneously offering millions of Hongkongers the opportunity to live and work in the UK.
Moreover, the pandemic has also raised wider concerns about relations with Beijing, beyond specific human rights issues. This past year revealed the UK’s dependency on China for critical goods, including personal protective equipment. The problem with this situation was made even more apparent after Beijing halted and slapped sanctions on Australian grain, wine and beef imports after Canberra called for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. Given this, it is no surprise that many in government are looking to get the UK off its current trajectory of ever-increasing dependence on China.
There has also been a marked shift in British public opinion. Last summer, a Pew poll showed a record 74 per cent of Britons held an unfavourable view of China. This was up 19-points on the previous year and completed a profound reversal of the relatively positive perception of the country which existed throughout the preceding decade. This trend is not limited to Britain. A similar hardening of views occurred across the free world from Canada to South Korea, and, unsurprisingly, in Australia too.
India was not included as part of this poll. However, previous polling by Pew suggests that Indians may have been ahead of the game. In 2019, unlike many of people surveyed Indian respondents did not share the view that China’s economic growth was good for their country. Concerns about Beijing’s growing military might were even higher. The pandemic will have done nothing to assuage these fears, not least given the recent heightening of tensions, and actual confrontation, between both nations along their Himalayan border.
Going forward, this shared skepticism of China’s growing global influence should give both the UK and India greater cause to strengthen ties with one another. The UK government’s Integrated Review outlines its ambitions to tilt towards the Indo-Pacific and already highlights India as a key partner in the region. Ambitions to enhance bi-lateral trade and defence cooperation will be mutually beneficial in themselves and it will also make both countries more resilient to Chinese coercion.
To meet this challenge a multilateral approach should also be pursued. The UK’s decision to invite India, alongside South Korea and Australia, to this year’s G7 summit is a positive step forward. Pushback against the idea of turning this G7+3 into a more permanent Democratic 10 (D10), purportedly from Europeans concerned about appearing anti-China, should be resisted. Furthermore, both countries should explore how they can increase each other’s involvements within existing bodies, whether that be India in the Five Eye intelligence alliance or the UK in the Quadrilateral security dialogues.
The increasing recognition, amongst Britain and India’s politicians and publics, of the challenges posed by China is something which can only enhance the case for a stronger partnership between both countries.
(Gray Sergeant is a London-based Research Fellow. All views expressed are personal.)