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UK’s Cameron in India on mission to woo old ally

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July 27, 2010

LONDON (KATAKAMI / CHINA POST ) — Seeking to win a key ally outside Washington and a booming business partner to spur Britain’s fragile economic recovery, David Cameron heads to India on Tuesday to lead his country’s most brazen charm offensive in decades.

The prime minister is taking a 90-strong delegation for three days of summits and schmoozing, aimed at revitalizing relations between New Delhi and its former colonial ruler.

Five government ministers, about 50 leaders of some of Britain’s largest companies, Olympic gold medalists and a host of academics will join Cameron in a rare — and hardly subtle — attempt at political courtship.

Britain’s new government has placed India at the heart of its strategy on foreign relations, seeking increased trade with emerging economies to fuel British growth, and new political alliances to preserve London’s clout on the world stage.

“This delegation is unprecedented in its scale and ambition,” said Jo Johnson, a Conservative Party lawmaker who previously lived in New Dehli and is joining the trip. “The government has made a very clear statement of intent, that India is rising to the top of Britain’s diplomatic priorities.”

In his first legislative program, Cameron signaled Britain’s plan to woo its neglected partner, pledging to craft a “new special relationship” with India. The phrasing is important: In Britain, the term “special relationship” has long referred to the close ties between London and Washington.

During visits to Bangalore and New Dehli, Cameron will hold talks with leading legislators, seal a round of trade deals and clink glasses with dozens of potential investors. Treasury chief George Osborne will take British executives to Mumbai for face-to-face talks with their Indian counterparts, aimed at kick-starting sluggish trade.

Britain was the 5th largest exporter to India in 2005, but has since fallen to 18th. Exports to India dropped from 4.12 billion pounds (US$6.4 billion) in 2008 to 2.9 billion (US$4.5 billion) in 2009.

“There is a belief that we haven’t benefited as much from India’s growth as we should have,” said Johnson.

After a decade of foreign policy dominated by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Cameron’s government pledged to rebuild relations left “to wither or stagnate,” as London focused on military missions rather than trade.

“From now on we will not neglect the wider world,” Foreign Secretary William Hague, who will also travel to India, said in a major speech last month, criticizing former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s regime.

Cameron will arrive in India from Turkey, another emerging nation identified is a key future ally and potential trading partner.

His Conservative Party and the smaller Liberal Democrats formed a coalition to oust Brown’s Labour Party following an inconclusive national election in May.

They found links with India had been dented after a 2009 visit by then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who offended his hosts by linking the Kashmir dispute to the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Miliband’s informal style also bristled with senior Indian officials.

India’s opposition BJP said at the time “there has been no bigger disaster than David Miliband’s visit” in relations with an ally.

Cameron’s schedule has an eye on repairing the damage.

Aside from lengthy talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he’ll hold meetings with Indian President Pratibha Patil, Vice President Hamid Ansari, external affairs minister S.M. Krishna and lay a wreath in honor of Mohandas Gandhi.

Lalit Mansingh, a former diplomat and India’s ex-High Commissioner to Britain acknowledged Cameron’s team has work to do.

When Tony Blair took office in 1997 there were hopes “there would be new dynamism in the relationship, but unfortunately in the last few years it has remained somewhat stagnant,” Mansingh said.

Mansingh said Cameron’s visit, which comes a week after his first trip to the White House, marks a “promising new beginning.”

“He’s coming with a large trade delegation and I think half of his Cabinet, so it does send a good signal, a strong signal that Britain wants a special relationship with India and I think we should all look forward to that,” he said.

Still, Cameron has some thorny issues to address.

He’ll need to explain the impact of Britain’s planned immigration cap, which will cut the number of people from outside Europe who are able to live and work in the U.K. from next April. India’s commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma has already warned the quota will likely hit Indian doctors, nurses and engineers seeking employment in the U.K.

British ministers must also discuss a review of aid spending which is likely to see the U.K. cut the 300 million pounds (US$464 million) it offers India each year, despite an overall rise in the development budget.

And then there’s the competition: Some experts wonder whether Cameron will find his overtures to India overshadowed by larger rivals like the U.S. and Japan, who are equally aggressive suitors.

“There are a whole number of countries who recognize that India is a fast growing economy and is going to be an important ally — not just the U.K.,” said Gareth Price, a member of a British government trade organization’s Asia task force and an analyst at London’s Chatham House think tank.

“On the Indian side, there’s surprise and a sense of wait and see what all this means,” he said. “What is a special relationship — and what is the U.K. bringing to the table?”  (*)

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