Boris Johnson is expected to visit India in January as the chief guest at the country’s national day parade underlining the British government’s desire to expand alliances around the world after leaving the EU.
The visit by the UK prime minister will come within weeks of Britain’s post-Brexit transition period ending on January 1 with London and Brussels still trying to negotiate a free trade agreement before that date. Downing Street’s confirmation that Mr Johnson would attend the annual Republic Day parade on January 26, coinciding with a four-day trip to India by Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary.
Mr Raab said Britain was looking to take trade to “another level” by signing an “enhanced trade partnership” next year as a precursor to a possible free trade agreement.
“As we come into the end of the transition period of the Brexit phase, we are looking out to the world, opening our horizons and looking east,” Mr Raab said in New Delhi after a meeting with his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar. “I think you can expect the United Kingdom to be more active and energetic.”
Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, last year welcomed fellow nationalist strongman Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, as chief guest at the parade, the country’s most prestigious diplomatic invitation.
Mr Jaishankar said Mr Johnson’s visit was “symbolic of a new era . . . of our relationship” but declined to give further details of the trade talks. The meeting between the foreign secretaries was described as a way to revive economic ties in a post-Brexit world.
The Indian and British economies have been worse hit by coronavirus compared to their regional peers. Official forecasts predict the UK, which suffered a steeper decline in output and more deaths than other G7 countries so far in the pandemic, is set to shrink by 11.3 per cent in 2020.
India’s economy, which overtook the UK last year to become the world’s fifth largest, was already flagging when a harsh nationwide lockdown led to a 24 per cent year-on-year fall in gross domestic product in the second quarter. Nomura expects it to contract by more than 7 per cent for the year.
Analysts said the UK’s relationship with India has suffered in recent years as London sought to maintain ties with fierce regional rival Pakistan and the US strengthened its links with New Delhi, which Washington views as a key strategic partner to counter China.
“Now there is movement in the sense that Britain has to re-anchor its relationships, India is a natural partner,” said C Raja Mohan, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
“To balance an increasingly assertive China, India needs more partners,” he said, “India is happy to welcome Britain back to the east of Suez — as long as it’s willing to work with India.”
Mr Johnson will be the second British prime minister, after John Major in 1993, to attend the Republic Day parade since India gained independence from Britain in 1947.