Boris Johnson will offer increased defence co-operation to Narendra Modi during talks in New Delhi on Friday, in a bid to break India’s reliance on Russian weaponry.
The UK prime minister will hold out the prospect of closer military ties in talks with his Indian counterpart on the final day of his visit. He has already said he has no plans to confront Modi over India’s refusal to condemn the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which supplies the majority of the country’s weapons.
The talks will focus instead on boosting security and defence collaboration, as well as building momentum around an ambitious target to finalise a free trade agreement by the end of this year.
“The world faces growing threats from autocratic states which seek to undermine democracy, choke off free and fair trade and trample on sovereignty. The UK’s partnership with India is a beacon in these stormy seas,” Johnson said.
The UK said it plans to support the construction of fighter jets in India, building on previous collaboration on combat aircraft dating back to the 1970s, and speed up the licensing process for New Delhi to procure weapons from Britain. The offer would also include more joint military exercises and officer exchanges.
With India preoccupied by military tensions with China, Downing Street said the UK would “support India’s requirements for new technology to identify and respond to threats in the Indian Ocean”.
Lord Karan Bilimoria, the CBI president who travelled to India with Johnson, said he would advocate for more opportunities for British defence companies to manufacture in India.
BAE Systems, the UK’s biggest defence contractor, has longstanding links with India through its partnership with Hindustan Aeronautics, most recently on the Hawk jet trainer and ground attack aircraft.
“We’ve got great expertise and technology, whether it’s companies like BAE or Rolls-Royce — I’m just naming a couple,” Bilimoria told the Financial Times.
India’s position on Ukraine has prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity in New Delhi in recent weeks, including high-level visits from Russia and China. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is also due to travel to India this weekend.
Johnson attracted controversy on Thursday when he visited a new JCB factory in the state of Gujarat not long after some of the bulldozers made by the British-based company were pictured demolishing Muslim-owned properties in a Delhi neighbourhood.
The prime minister insisted India was “democratic” and that he would raise “difficult issues” with Modi, but his spokesman said he was not referring specifically to the controversial bulldozing, which has sparked a Supreme Court case.
Johnson posed for pictures in a bulldozer after being shown around the plant by JCB’s owner Lord Anthony Bamford, a major Tory donor. Amnesty India, a human rights body, said the timing of Johnson’s visit was “not only ignorant but his silence on the incident [was] deafening”.
Johnson’s allies insisted the new factory was “a very good illustration of a UK business working with India”, adding it was “a matter for the Indian authorities as to how the equipment is used”. JCB declined to comment.
Johnson and Modi will also discuss trade when they meet on Friday as they try to push for a deal well ahead of general elections taking place in both the UK and India in 2024.
The UK, which trades twice as much with Belgium as it does with India, argues that British businesses have struggled to grow in India due to barriers such as high tariffs on everything from whisky to car parts.
But efforts to improve trade have been stymied in the past by New Delhi’s demands for more UK visas for Indian students and skilled workers.
This time British officials have suggested they are willing to consider greater opportunities for Indians, despite the fact that such plans will prove politically contentious. En route to India, Johnson said Britain faced a “massive shortage” of hundreds of thousands of workers in sectors such as IT.