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UK hopes to be India's partner of choice

Update: February, 22/2013 - 07:22

by Pham Diem Quynh

During the global economic recession, emerging markets have become more popular destinations for leaders from developed countries to visit in the hope of tapping their potential and boosting their own sluggish economies. Many European leaders have tried to court India in order to gain a foothold in one of the worlds fastest-growing economies.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron's trip to India this week, his second as Prime Minister, is designed to stress how important India's position is in UK foreign policy.

At a time when the UK is struggling to get its economy going, it sees India as a key strategic partner in what Cameron has called a "global race".

Cameron has said the two countries enjoyed a "special relationship", a term usually reserved for Britain's ties with the United States. The Indian economy is forecast to overtake Britain's in size in the decades ahead. Their relationship is undergoing profound change.

After more than a century of colonisation, Britain is still seeking markets in India, but in India these days, it has been reignited in a very different post colonial guise. Britain has been trying to recast its ties with India. In recognition of India's "changing place in the world", after 2015, Britain has said it would focus on "technical cooperation" and private sector investment. The ties between London and New Delhi were no longer an issue of selling goods and services; they were about jointly investing in new projects and welcoming investment back into the UK, said Cameron during his visit to India.

Britain is to join forces with India to counter growing cyberthreats and criminal gangs across the world.

Cameron's delegation, which included representatives of more than 100 companies, is the biggest business delegation accompanied by a British prime minister abroad. It included four ministers and nine MPs.

Companies with executives travelling with Mr Cameron include BAE Systems, BP, De La Rue, Diageo, the British unit of EADS, HSBC, JCB, Lloyds, the London Stock Exchange, London Underground, Rolls-Royce and Standard Chartered.

Camerons' trip aimed to bolster the two countries business and trade ties and perhaps strengthen his support among 1.5 million British voters of Indian descent.

Cameron called on his hosts to open up their economy because Britain had done the same for Indian companies, making it easier to do business in India.

Britain understands that it needs to adjust its policy towards India or face the risk of losing its traditionally special position to a country that has so many would-be courtiers.

Cameron is the latest in a long series of western leaders who have arrived in New Delhi on a puff of somewhat overblown rhetoric, leading a train of hopeful businessmen, and aspiring to leave India with a pocketful of contracts.

Cameron's trip came days after a similar trade mission by President François Hollande of France, underlining how Europe's debt-stricken states were competing to tap into India. The country had barely bid adieu to President Hollande - who left town optimistic about a $12-billion contract for French fighter jets - when British Prime Minister Cameron landed in Mumbai on Monday amid a scandal engulfing an Anglo-Italian helicopter deal.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked for Cameron's assistance in the increasingly embarrassing bribery investigation into India's purchase of 12 AgustaWestland helicopters made at a plant in Britain.

AgustaWestlands parent company, Finmeccanica, is based in Italy. The companies chairman and chief executive, Giuseppe Orsi, was arrested recently on corruption and fraud charges after investigators found that Finmeccanica had engaged in an elaborate scheme to bribe Indian generals to win the contract, charges that at least one top general has firmly denied. While stressing that Finmeccanica was "an Italian company", Cameron promised to "respond to any request for information".

He also became the first serving prime minister to voice regret about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, although Queen Elizabeth made a similar statement in 1997 that caused an outpouring of pained reflections about India's colonial history under Britain.

Diplomatic delicacy made Cameron's visit to India fruitful and opened up more opportunities for British and Indian business activities.

India cannot have three or four equally unique partners. What it can do is to have useful relationships with many other countries, including Britain. The question for Cameron is whether the UK has any special advantage in this competition.

The UK has a strong basis to hope it gain a special status in the Indian market compared with other EU countries.

Britain has a lot of Indian investment, and plans to relax visa rules for new investors.

India is a huge nation with a massive population and a developing country that is seen as a future world superpower. The UK, France and Germany have all tried to lure India. Now the game is in India's hands. The country should take this opportunity to bargain with big developed countries and enhance its economic and political positions in both international and regional arenas. — VNS

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