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Boris Johnson tries to lure India toward the West

LONDON — Britain and its closest security allies want to wean India off Russian weapons. But Boris Johnson will find New Delhi’s relationship with Moscow difficult to unravel.

Johnson’s two-day trip to India, which starts Thursday after being postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic, is expected to largely focus on politics, in particular defense, energy security and trade. No business delegation will travel with the U.K. leader and his agenda is light on engagements with Indian firms.

On Thursday, Johnson will visit Ahmedabad in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state Gujarat, where he is expected to announce investment in key industries in Britain and India, including a new partnership covering science, health and technology.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added a new dimension to the trip, which was previously aimed at enhancing the U.K.-India relationship post Brexit.

The West has a number of requests for India: not to increase its imports of Russian fossil fuels or enter new arms deals with Russian producers; not to signal strategic alignment with Moscow; and not to backfill the gap left by Western companies that have left Russia in the wake of international sanctions over the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Johnson stressed the geopolitics in remarks released to the media ahead of his trip: India is “a highly valued strategic partner for the U.K. in these uncertain times,” the statement said. “As we face threats to our peace and prosperity from autocratic states, it is vital that democracies and friends stick together.”

New Delhi has sought to maintain an increasingly difficult balance between the Western bloc, which Modi wants to boost trade with, and Russia, its historical defense and security ally.

India is also hugely reliant on Russian defense equipment and it fears that moving away from Moscow could push Russian President Vladimir Putin toward China — emboldening Beijing further in the Indo-Pacific and stoking more tension on the China-India border, said Harsh V. Pant, vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi. This has seen India abstain in U.N. votes condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Few expect Johnson to be able to persuade Modi to dramatically align with the West against Russia.

“It would be very difficult for the U.K. to make this case to India about reducing its dependence on Russia,” Pant said. “India has been making the case that this is not a short-term process.”

Even if India takes some baby steps toward the West, Modi will want to keep a channel of communication open with Moscow, Pant added, in order to prevent Russia and China from leaving India “marginalized” in Asia.

Johnson is keeping expectations low, according to a business person familiar with the U.K.-India talks. “I don’t think Boris Johnson would go there expecting India to start changing the way it votes in the United Nations,” they said.

It’s all about arms

Nevertheless, over the last decade, India has diversified its arms imports, buying more from countries such as the U.S., France, Israel, Australia and Japan. This has allowed the Asian giant to reduce its reliance on Russian defense equipment from about 80 percent to slightly over 50 percent.

Last week, Indian media reported the country has canceled plans to buy 48 Mi-17 V5 helicopters from Russia as it pushes toward domestically made military equipment.

But what the country buys is as important as how much it spends. India still purchases strategic equipment from Russia. It recently bought five crucial surface-to-air S400 missiles under a $5 billion deal that led to the U.S. threatening India with sanctions after New Delhi chose the Russian-made missiles over the American Patriot PAC 3.

India’s nuclear submarines are also based on Russian technology, its aircraft carrier is a Russian legacy carrier loaded up with Russian equipment, and most of its combat aircraft, tanks and rifles are of Russian origin.

Since the Cold War, the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation have been regarded by many in India as bigger supporters of its interests at the U.N. than the West. Key to this has been Moscow’s willingness to sell advanced defense equipment to India — kits that no Western country has been willing to supply.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and post-Brexit Britain’s appetite for more international trade, however, mean conditions are ripe for a change of tack.

While the U.K. is not in a position to offer India a replacement for S400 missiles, Johnson has an ace up his sleeve: boosting the co-production of highly sensitive defense technologies by British subsidiaries in India, and local firms in the long term.

India will not speed up its decoupling from Russian defense technology unless Western businesses allow Indian firms access to their know-how, said Dominic Asquith, a former U.K. high commissioner to India.

Pant put it more bluntly: The West, he said, needs to start treating India “as a reliable partner.”

Show you trust me

But that will take some work. U.K. businesses’ mistrust over India’s intellectual property safeguards, the dominance of India’s state manufacturers in the country’s defense industry, and long, problematic Indian procurement processes, have hindered previous attempts to bring companies from both countries together in joint defense technology projects.

The Indian government has tried to tackle these problems, and is also promoting indigenous production through Modi’s Make in India campaign. With a defense budget of about £52 billion for the financial year 2022-23 and increasing production of defense equipment by Indian private companies, the scope for joint British-India projects is significant, industry voices say.

Aaditya Dave, a research analyst at the U.K.-based defense think tank RUSI, said India will likely prioritize bilateral cooperation with Britain and other countries, especially Australia, Japan and the U.S. — the three members that together with India form the Quad, an Indo-Pacific diplomatic network that China claims is as dangerous as Russia claims NATO’s expansion is.

“In terms of trust, the U.K.-Indian relationship is in a much better place now than it was two or even three years ago,” Dave said.

U.K.-India defense trade will experience a “big increase” over coming years, said Suresh Surana, founder of the consultancy RSM India, but India will gradually move toward only purchasing critical components from British companies if these are manufactured in the Asian country.

Despite that, gray areas remain. An investigation by the University of Toronto’s research laboratory Citizen Lab released Monday associated India and three other countries with infecting mobile phones of officials at the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the spyware Pegasus in 2020 and 2021. NSO, the Israeli company behind the software, claims it only sells it to state organizations.

Oil talks

Although the focus of Johnson’s trip will be security, Asquith said it would be important for the British prime minister to “maintain the momentum” on the U.K.-India bilateral trade talks, set to resume next week, by making progress nontariff barriers such as intellectual property and investment protection.

Fresh from a round of state elections, which saw Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win in the largest state of Uttar Pradesh, the Indian prime minister is focused on other races later this year, including in his home state Gujarat in December.

“Confronting Russia or supporting the West does not have much resonance with the electorate,” Asquith said. “There are some in the political elite and in parts of the military where there is sympathy for Russia. It is unquestionably true that for most Indians, Ukraine feels quite a long way away and they don’t feel as emotionally connected to what is happening there as Europeans do.”

Modi will also focus on protecting the Indian economy first. Since the beginning of March, India has ramped up its imports of heavily discounted Russian oil. It also imported more Russian coal last month, reaching highs not seen in more than two years, according to data from commodity intelligence firm Kpler.

Europe’s own heavy reliance on Russian fossil fuels undermines Western calls on India on the energy front, said India’s Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Earlier this month, Jaishankar told a press conference in Washington that his country’s total purchase of Russian oil for April would be less than what Europe buys in an afternoon.

“If you are looking at energy purchases from Russia, I would suggest that your attention should be focused on Europe,” he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the former U.K. high commissioner to India. His name is Dominic Asquith.

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