Rajnath Singh to visit U.K., the first by a Defence Minister in 22 years

Rajnath Singh is expected to hold talks with his British counterpart Grant Shapps and call on British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Minister David Cameron

Updated - January 07, 2024 06:27 pm IST

Published - January 07, 2024 01:52 pm IST

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is set to embark on a trip to London on January 8, 2024. This is the first trip by an Indian Defence Minister to the U.K. in over two decades. File

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is set to embark on a trip to London on January 8, 2024. This is the first trip by an Indian Defence Minister to the U.K. in over two decades. File | Photo Credit: ANI

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will embark on a two-day visit to the U.K. on January 8 to rejuvenate strategic and security ties between the two countries, including possible collaboration to jointly develop fighter jets and other military platforms.

The Defence Ministry, announcing the visit, said Mr. Singh and his British counterpart Grant Shapps are expected to discuss a wide range of issues in the spheres of defence, security and industrial cooperation. He is also expected to call on British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Minister David Cameron.

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The Defence Minister will be accompanied by a high-level delegation comprising senior officials from the three services, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Department of Defence Production. “He will also interact with the CEOs and industry leaders of the UK Defence Industry and meet with the Indian community there,” the ministry said in a statement.

Mr. Singh’s talks with the UK Defence Secretary Shapps would largely focus on sharing of critical technology and expanding bilateral industrial defence cooperation, people familiar with the matter said. The two sides are expected to discuss collaboration in joint development of fighter aircraft and other military platforms, they said. They are also expected to discuss the situation in the Indo-Pacific, West Asia and Ukraine, they added.

This visit is 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 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.

Expanding India-UK partnership

In April 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his then British counterpart Boris Johnson had agreed on a new and expanded India-UK defence partnership. During his visit to India, Johnson announced that the UK is creating an Open General Export Licence (OGEL) for India to “reduce bureaucracy and slashing delivery times for defence procurement”. The then British Prime Minister also said that the UK would help India in the co-development of military hardware, including indigenous production of fighter jets.

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A statement issued after the talks between Modi and Johnson had said the two leaders reiterated their commitment to “transform” defence and security cooperation as a key pillar of the India-UK Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The India-UK relationship was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership during the India-UK virtual summit held between Modi and Johnson in May 2021.

At the summit, the two sides adopted a 10-year roadmap to expand ties in the key areas of trade and economy, defence and security, climate change, and people-to-people connections.

Both sides are also keen to expand cooperation in the maritime sphere. In June, 2021, the UK posted a liaison officer at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre (IFC) which has emerged as a key hub in tracking movements of ships and other developments in the Indian Ocean region. The UK joined a select group of countries such as the US, Australia, Japan and France to depute officials at the Gurgaon-based facility. The Indian Navy established the IFC-IOR in 2018 to effectively keep track of the shipping traffic as well as other critical developments in the region under a collaborative framework with like-minded countries.

Improvement in relationship

“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).

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As a defence analyst who has been championing such a visit in his high-level discussions over the years, Mr. Roy-Chaudhury believes Mr. Singh’s proposed upcoming visit 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 2023.

“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.

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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.

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.

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