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Exclusive: Rajnath Singh’s UK Visit Is the First by An Indian Defense Minister In 22 Years

Defense Minister Rajnath Singh will begin a three-day visit to the United Kingdom on Monday, which is seen as significant to the bilateral defense and security partnership given that the last ministerial-level visit occurred 22 years ago. Singh’s previously scheduled visit to the UK in June 2022 was cancelled by the Indian side for protocol reasons, making next week’s tour highly anticipated.

Aside from extensive discussions with his UK counterpart, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, Singh is expected to inspect a ceremonial Guard of Honor and pay visits to the Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar memorials in London. His three-day itinerary will also include community interactions with members of the Indian diaspora in the United Kingdom. This visit is significant for both optics and substance. In terms of the former, this is the first visit by India’s defense minister to the United Kingdom in 22 years. George Fernandes, then-defense minister of a previous BJP-led government, paid his last visit to London on January 22, 2002, according to Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South and Central Asian Defense, Strategy, and Diplomacy at the London-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

As a defense analyst who has advocated for such a visit in high-level discussions over the years, Roy-Chaudhury believes Singh’s proposed visit next week represents an improvement in India’s political relationship and the establishment of trust with the UK following British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s visit to India for the G20 Summit in September last year. In substance, the visit will seek to strengthen military cooperation and defense industrial partnerships with the United Kingdom by building on the November 2023 Defence Consultative Group (DCG) meeting in Delhi at the Secretaries level and the October 2023 inaugural meeting of the 2+2 Foreign and Defence Dialogue at the Joint Secretaries level, he stated.

The United Kingdom is no longer among India’s top five strategic partners. However, the resumption of a strong India-UK defence technological and industrial partnership could be achieved through the completion of ongoing projects on aero-engines with Rolls-Royce, naval electric propulsion with GE (Naval) UK and Rolls-Royce, and ground-based air defense systems with MBDA (UK),” he said. “Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is likely to visit one of these arms manufacturing facilities during his visit to the UK,” he said.

It will be a closely watched visit, coming against the backdrop of ongoing Indian concerns about pro-Khalistan violence in the UK as well as some contentious legacy issues regarding UK defense supplies to India. However, analysts believe that with this opportunity for ministerial dialogue, the focus should be on putting the Narendra Modi-led government’s Make in India and Atmanirbhar Bharat agendas into action in the defense sector. An improved India-UK defense partnership dates back to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s April 2022 visit to India, when he announced the creation of an Open General Export Licence (OGEL) for India, which the UK government claimed would reduce bureaucracy and help in “slashing delivery times for defense procurement.”

As both India and the UK prepare for general elections this year, all aspects of the relationship are under close scrutiny, including accelerated negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) that is expected to significantly strengthen the GBP 36 billion bilateral partnership.

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