LONDON: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is set to embark upon a three-day visit to the UK from Monday, seen as significant to the bilateral partnership in the sphere of defence and security as the last ministerial level visit took place 22 years ago.
Mr Singh’s previously planned visit to the UK in June 2022 was called off by the Indian side for “protocol reasons”, making next week’s tour a highly anticipated one.
Besides wide-ranging talks with his UK counterpart, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, Singh is expected to inspect a ceremonial Guard of Honour and undertake visits to Mahatma Gandhi and Dr B.R. Ambedkar memorials in London.
A community interaction with members of the Indian diaspora in the UK is also expected to be part of his three-day itinerary.
“This visit is significant in terms of both optics and substance. In terms of the former, this is the first visit of India’s defence minister to the UK in 22 years – the last visit was by then defence minister of a previous BJP-led government, George Fernandes, to London on 22 January 2002,” said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South and Central Asian Defence, Strategy and Diplomacy at the London-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
As a defence analyst who has been championing such a visit in his high-level discussions over the years, Roy-Chaudhury believes Mr Singh’s proposed visit next week indicates an improvement in India’s political relationship and the building of trust with the UK following British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s visit to India for the G20 Summit in September last year.
“In substantive terms, the visit will seek to deepen military cooperation and defence industrial partnerships with the UK by building on the November 2023 Defence Consultative Group (DCG) meeting in Delhi at the level of Secretaries and the inaugural meeting of the 2 2 Foreign and Defence Dialogue at the level of Joint Secretaries in October 2023,” he said.
“The UK is no longer one of India’s top five strategic partners. However, the resumption of a strong India-UK defence technological and industrial partnership could take place through the delivery of ongoing projects on aero-engines with Rolls-Royce; naval electric propulsion with GE (Naval) UK and Rolls-Royce; and ground-based air defence system with MBDA (UK),” he said.
“Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is likely to visit one of these arms manufacturing sites during his visit to the UK,” he noted.
It will be a keenly watched visit, taking place against the backdrop of ongoing Indian concerns over pro-Khalistan violence in the UK as well as some contentious legacy issues on UK defence supplies to India.
However, analysts believe with this opportunity for a dialogue at the ministerial level, the focus should be on the operationalisation of the Narendra Modi-led government’s Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat agenda in the defence sector.
An enhanced India-UK defence partnership dates back to the April 2022 Indian visit of former prime minister Boris Johnson, who announced the creation of an Open General Export Licence (OGEL) for India which the UK government said would “reduce bureaucracy” and help in “slashing delivery times for defence procurement”.
As both India and the UK prepare for a general election this year, all aspects of the relationship are in sharp focus, including sped-up negotiations towards a free trade agreement (FTA) expected to significantly enhance the GBP 36-billion bilateral partnership.