UK’s Strategy with India and Sri Lanka

By Dr Srimal Fernando | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 6 2021

By Dr Srimal Fernando

The power matrix between the UK and South Asian nations and its nature has been influenced by the paradigm shift in the global order. India and Sri Lanka inherently occupy a unique geostrategic position in the Indian Ocean region. The connection between the UK, India and Sri Lanka can be traced back to the pre-independence British period. The modern relationship between world’s oldest and largest democracies: the UK and India along with Sri Lanka see a refashioning of their foreign policy doctrines.  

Geopolitical importance of India 

India and the UK share a modern partnership founded on solid historical ties. While the UK is one of the oldest democracies, India is the worlds largest and a committed members of the Commonwealth.   India is described as an indispensable partner in the UK’s Integrated Review. The UK and India share several basic values. 

In order to steer bilateral cooperation for the next ten years, India and the UK adopted an ambitious India-UK Roadmap to 2030 that was signed in early May 2021. This Roadmap identifies significant areas of cooperation ranging from climate change, education and healthcare to trade and investment. Despite the pandemic, the flow of trade and investments between the UK and India continues on a positive trajectory. According to a UN report, in 2020, India received US$64 billion in Foreign Direct Investment: the fifth largest recipient of inflows in the world. Trade between the UK and India totals to around US $ 31.9 billion. The UK used to be a vital export market and investment destination for India within the EU. In addition, the UK is the sixth largest investor in India with US$30.5  billion in foreign direct investments(FDIs) .  India and the UK plan for a “quantum leap” in their ties which includes plans to double the value of bilateral trade over the next decade and to negotiate a free-trade agreement.  Presently, there are about   five hundred and seventy UK companies in India directly employing over four hundred thousand Indians. ( According to eighth Grant Thornton, the number of Indian companies operating in the UK has grown to eight hundred and fifty in 2021 despite Brexit. Defence and security ties were emphasized as one of five key ‘pillars’ to promote the relationship to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’.

The Roadmap commits the two nations to collaborate on tackling cyber, space, crime and terrorist threats with the aim of developing a “free, open and secure Indo-Pacific region” to maximise democratic participation and economic opportunities. India and the UK have a long history of shared commitment to promote ties in education. The new Migration and Mobility Partnership for students and professionals to be implemented by April 2022, is outlined in the Roadmap. India is a major contributor to the British Higher Education system with more than fifty thousand Indian students studying in the UK. There is also a large Indian diaspora in the UK amounting to 1.6 million who form a strong bridge between the two countries. Over the coming decades, the ties between the UK and India will be vital. The 2030 Roadmap on India-UK relations while ambitious offers the much-needed reset at a time of strategic urgency. 

Rebalancing diplomatic ties 

Sri Lanka’s strategic significance in the Indo Pacific sphere could see the diplomatic ties between the UK and Sri Lanka rise to new heights of collaboration and co-operation emphasising her Majesty the Queen’s statement during her visit to Sri Lanka: “Britain and Sri Lanka have had a long association and stand together as equal, independent members of the Commonwealth. We may be geographically far apart, but we are friends and shall remain so”. Both UK and Sri Lanka could work further towards building the political and economic bonds spanning over hundred years to achieve strong diplomatic ties in the future. 

After Ceylon became a self-governing dominion within the Commonwealth in 1948, the British footprint left behind consisted of the Westminster style of governance, a strong constitution, a home-grown economy and an independent foreign policy to face external challenges. In the past seven decades, these features have continuously shaped and reshaped the country’s domestic and foreign policies. The UK has continued to offer development aid to Sri Lanka that has facilitated favourable economic conditions conducive to trade, tourism and investment.

A symbol of UK -Sri Lanka ties in the new era is the British funded £113 million Victoria dam, built to generate hydroelectricity for the country in 1984.  It is also worth mentioning the trading links dating back to almost two centuries evident from the present vibrant commercial engagements between the two nations. While Sri Lanka has expanded its export base, the UK has continued to be one of the nation’s most significant bilateral trading partners. Since the turn of the millennium, bilateral trade has seen an increase in the past two decades with an increase of 78 per cent . In 2018 alone bilateral trade figures stood at £1.25 billion. Furthermore, the UK has also heavily invested across a broad range of sectors with a key focus on infrastructure, energy and technology. Currently with over a hundred  British companies operating in the country, the UK remains among the top 10 investors in Sri Lanka. 

In addition, the UK also plays a significant role in Sri Lanka’s tourism sector, one of the country’s biggest foreign income generators.  The number of tourists visiting the island from the UK has steadily increased over the years with 254,176 arrivals in 2018 alone. Balancing Sri Lanka’s external policy outlook with the UK’s foreign policy trend through trade and aid interdependencies has demonstrated a powerful means for achieving decent levels of economic growth. 

Debatably, interdependence between Sri Lanka and the Western powers has reshaped Sri Lanka’s development while Sri Lanka-UK ties are projected to get stronger with time.

Southern Policy

Trade, aid and infrastructural investments between the UK, India and Sri Lanka during the last seven decades have opened up bigger prospects for Sri Lanka’s growth and development. As the UK is currently aiming to strengthen defence and trade ties, India and its Southern neighbour, Sri Lanka are significant to the Indo-Pacific strategic construct.  The results of these efforts can be a massive potential advantage for the UK as it builds its long-term security strategy to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean. The Indian subcontinent is considered by the Western world as an entry point to the Indian Ocean and a key partner in trade, diplomacy and maritime security.  For India and Sri Lanka, balancing their external policy outlook with the UK’s policy orientation through trade and aid interdependencies has proven to be a powerful means towards accomplishing decent levels of economic growth.

About the Author: 

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella.  He is also an Adviser/ Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union

By Dr Srimal Fernando | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 6 2021

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