When Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, India’s press was thrilled. ‘From Age of Empire to Rishi Raj’ declared the Times of India: another headline hailed the ‘Browning Street’ phenomenon. ‘Indian son rises over Empire’, proclaimed the New Delhi TV channel, a play on the colonial-era adage that the sun never sets on Britain’s empire.
When Sunak visits New Delhi for the G20 next week, it will be quite a moment. Two Hindu heads of government will meet – the old power and the new. Sunak’s agenda is to bind Britain closer to a growing Asian economic powerhouse – which last week completed its first successful moon landing – while containing China by bolstering its rivals. We have had a Japanese trade deal, a nuclear submarine deal with Australia – and with India, plans for closer economic ties. A free trade agreement (FTA) is being seen as just part of the architecture needed for a wider ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ – a move that could define Britain’s role in the world.
The strategy comes down to Sunak’s interpretation of how Brexit ought to reshape British foreign policy – and where he thinks his predecessors got it wrong. There has been a shift away from hyping trade deals as the benefits of Brexit. Boris Johnson started talks with India saying he wanted it ‘done by Diwali’ (October) – a stance shared by Liz Truss – which did not happen. Sunak felt that such deadlines weaken Britain’s hand. His style has been to say he is in no rush – and to judge the success of Brexit in other ways. Specifically, the ability to strengthen ties with the rest of the world.
So the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ is Sunak’s version of Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’.