Cameron Courts India to be Britain's New Trade Buddy

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Umit Bektas / Reuters

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron smiles as he addresses the media in Ankara July 27, 2010.

For decades, Britain's foreign policy has been defined by its much vaunted "special relationship" with the U.S., so it was no surprise that Prime Minister David Cameron made a trip to the White House his priority earlier this month. But with India and China firmly established as the new economic superpowers, Cameron is now looking east, with an unprecedented mission to India on Wednesday designed to boost mutual trade and cement one of the U.K.'s oldest relationships, dating back almost 400 years.

Even before he got to Delhi, Cameron signaled his desire to re-focus on the East and his willingness to challenge traditional allies with a visit to Turkey, during which he expressed his "anger" at the European states who oppose the country's membership to the E.U. Later, during a press conference in Ankara, he repeated his description of the Gaza strip as a "prison camp." Israel will not have been happy, but the remarks underline Cameron's determination to show he is pursuing a fresh foreign policy agenda.

And that means talking business. Cameron's aides are describing the India trip as the biggest business delegation in the recent history of British politics. Flying with the prime minister are half a dozen senior ministers — Foreign Secretary William Hague and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne among them — and around 50 industry heads, including those from defense firm BAE Systems, cellphone company Vodafone and Barclays bank. Once in India, the delegates will deploy across the country like troops in a military exercise, with separate groups meeting leading industrialists, financiers and government ministers. Cameron will, on Wednesday, travel to Bangalore to visit Infosys Technologies, the country's second-largest software services provider. The aim of all this intense activity is "to hang out the sign that Britain is open for business," as one close Cameron aide declared.

"India matters, its economy is growing at three times the speed of ours," finance minister Osborne told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper before the trip. "That's why this week David Cameron will lead the strongest British delegation to visit India in modern times."

Cameron and Osborne believe it is business with the new global powers that will help pull the U.K. further out of recession, and deals done this week aim to boost bilateral trade between the two countries way beyond the current £11.5 billion ($18 billion) a year. While in Washington, Cameron made a point of stressing Britain's "junior partner" status in its relationship with the U.S., he will describe the U.K.'s relationship with India as an "aspirational partnership" when he delivers a keynote speech during his visit.

This re-aligning of Britain's foreign policy — with eyes turned East, looking beyond Europe — marks a distinct shift from previous governments of all stripes: In the past, British leaders have tended to place emphasis on the U.S. and E.U., with whom the majority of U.K. trade is done. At the same time, the overt use of foreign policy as an arm of economic policy represents a major change from the way such missions were undertaken by the coalition's predecessors. Prime ministers have always taken business leaders with them on foreign trips, but this is probably the first time they have taken up all the front seats.

A further sign that Cameron would blur the lines between fiscal and foreign policy came last week, when the prime minister appointed an official from the department of business, Simon Fraser, to the top job in the Foreign Office. It was thought to be an unprecedented move, designed to show just how overseas trade is to take center-stage in all diplomatic activity. "David Cameron is going to use foreign policy as a tool of economic policy without any hint of embarrassment and this massive trip to India is the biggest sign of it so far," says Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential Conservative Home and America in the World websites. "This is a PM in a hurry to rescue the British economy."

Montgomerie adds that, while Cameron isn't dismissing British business' long-held links with the U.S., he does recognize that, by now, "British industries can look after themselves well enough in the U.S. But in India and China, the [British] government can have more of a role ... The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has to be different — [it's more like] the Foreign and Commerce Office now, and is basically a branch of the Treasury."

The question, of course, is whether India is quite as excited about these new opportunities being offered by Cameron as he is himself. Some once iconic British brands — such as Jaguar Land Rover and Corus (formerly British Steel) — are already owned by Indian firms, while the U.K.'s richest man, Lakshmi Mittal, is Indian. And that £11.5 billion ($18 billion) in bilateral trade starts to look less impressive when compared to the £36 billion ($56 billion) between India and the U.S.

So, while Cameron goes East to boost the U.K.'s new special relationship with India, it may be that Delhi is looking further West than London.