London | Britain’s Defence Minister Gavin Williamson is reportedly under fire from within the UK Cabinet for turning down a bilateral meeting with his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman, according to a media report which she dismissed as a “baseless story”.
The meeting was requested over a month ago by Indian officials, and at least two British ministers including foreign secretary Boris Johnson reportedly sought to convince Williamson of the importance of finding time in the diary for Sitharaman.
Williamson, UK Secretary of State for defence, declined to meet Sitharaman’s three-day window of bilateral talks on security cooperation and defence procurement between June 20 and 22, according to The Sunday Times.
Sitharaman took to Twitter to express her disappointment over the “baseless story”.
“Disappointed, Sunday Times (UK). A baseless story, to say the least. The UK & India have a robust relationship. A mutually convenient date is being worked out for meeting & I look forward to it,” she said.
Williamson responded to her tweet with the words: And I very much look forward to it too.
The newspaper quoted a UK government source as saying that “People are spitting blood about this.”
“India has one of the fastest-growing defence budgets in the world, spending something like USD 50 billion a year. It feels like another ill-judged move by Williamson,” the source said.
The report said that Williamson has been accused of angering one of the world’s largest emerging economies by snubbing his Indian counterpart.
Manoj Ladwa, the Founder of UK-India Week organised in London and Buckinghamshire between June 18 and 22, said: “It would of course have been really good if Williamson could have spared some time, but let’s also not kid ourselves that the Indians will have lost too much sleep over it”.
The event, which included a two-day conclave and UK-India Awards, attracted a battery of senior political and Nirmala Sitharaman,business figures, including Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox, Culture Secretary Matt Hancock, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Foreign Office Minister Mark Field and Liberal Democrat Leader Vince Cable and the opposition Labour party representatives like Barry Gardiner.
From the Indian side, Niti Aayog Vice-Chairman Rajiv Kumar was joined by finance and railways minister Piyush Goyal via live video link from New Delhi.
Sitharaman had been expected as the senior-most Indian attendee but the visit was put off as a meeting with Williamson did not work out.
Ladwa CEO of UK-based media house India Inc. said as Brexit looms, the UK needs to be doing everything possible to engage with “special partners like India”.
“The UK and India have shared concerns about global and regional security. The opportunity for the UK to collaborate with India in defence matters has never been greater.
“It is therefore only right that so many senior UK leaders from across the political spectrum took the opportunity of UK-India Week to underline the importance of ties with India, across sectors and issues,” he said.
In his address during UK-India Week, India’s High Commissioner to the UK YK Sinha had highlighted that both countries are “on the same page” on a large number of issues but a lot more can be done to enhance trade ties.
“India is the UK’s 17th largest trading partner and the UK is India’s 15th largest trading partner. Our total trade last year was slightly over 16 billion pounds… It’s good but it’s certainly not good enough. We need to do much more,” said Sinha.
With the Indian Air Force (IAF) kick-starting the process of acquiring around 110 new fighter jets from global vendors in April, the UK would be keen to be among the countries in the running for the lucrative deal.
However, another bilateral discussion related to India-UK defence ties scheduled for next week was reportedly cancelled from the Indian side.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) indicated that a meeting between Sitharaman and Williamson is expected in the coming weeks, during the ongoing English summer.
“The UK and India have an excellent, strong and deep defence relationship. A meeting between the defence secretary and his Indian counterpart is being planned for the summer,” a spokesperson added.