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Idea of English-speaking nations cooperating with each other offers possibilities that India can take advantage of

In Delhi, the Anglosphere is quickly dismissed as a colonial construct. Those who let India’s colonial past overwhelm its current strategic judgements, however, do great injustice to Delhi’s gains in the international system, in absolute terms as well as relative to Britain.

Written by C. Raja Mohan
Updated: December 29, 2020 8:55:32 am
The idea of the Anglosphere has a long lineage in Britain’s history. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

An Anglosphere — or the world of English-speaking people bound by common political beliefs, similar legal traditions, and shared geopolitical interests — was among the main ideas that animated the political movement in Britain that successfully pulled London out of the European Union.

Sceptics have derided the Anglosphere as naive nostalgia for a long-lost empire. But with Brexit done and a trade deal in place with the EU, the Anglosphere is now likely to acquire some gravitas in British foreign policy. It could be a powerful complement to the United Kingdom’s continuing commercial engagement with Europe and a new motor for Britain’s independent political role in the world.

Defining the ambit and mechanics of the Anglosphere will certainly take time. Delhi would want to begin a conversation on the subject when it hosts British Prime Minister Boris Johnson next month as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations. Many in Delhi ask why India should have anything to do with the resurrection of an idea that is rooted in London’s colonial past. But if Delhi looks to the future rather than the past, it could find the Anglosphere an interesting framework to engage with.

The idea of the Anglosphere has a long lineage in Britain’s history. In the late 19th century, Britain confronted deepening challenges to its global economic primacy and growing threats to the stability of the empire from within and rising powers from without. One response was to build a “Greater Britain” with imperial trade preferences and a common defence system. There were sweeping ideas of a single nation-state for the vast empire governed by a parliament sitting in London. But none of them was realistic. A modest version of this idea passed onto the Commonwealth as Britain’s main international vehicle after the Second World War.

As European integration unfolded, Britain could not avoid the gravitational pull next door. It eventually opted for closer ties with Europe in the 1970s and the Commonwealth became less salient. Europe, however, was always a divisive subject in Britain, especially among the Conservatives who did not wish to see London cede its sovereignty to Brussels. And as the European project became more ambitious after the Cold War, a strong group of Eurosceptics resurrected the idea of London returning to its natural terrain — the Anglosphere.

The contemporary debate on the Anglosphere encompasses several ideas. One is the notion of a liberal, free-trading Britain that stands apart from the regulatory state and closed market that Brussels was building. Reinforcing this idea was the notion of a “Global Britain” that reclaims its global maritime orientation, and rebuilds its deep linkages with the English-speaking world.

While the idea of an Anglosphere gains ground, there is no agreement on who might constitute such a group and what it might do. For some, five nations — the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — are at the core of the Anglosphere. Others define it more narrowly — the so-called CANZUK group that excludes the United States. A broader view sees economic and strategic collaboration with other states like India, Ireland, Singapore and Japan as part of rebuilding the Anglosphere.

At present, only one institution reflects the possibilities of the Anglosphere — the so-called “Five Eyes” arrangement for intelligence sharing between the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Extending the Five Eyes framework to the economic and security domain is an idea that has gained some recent traction.

Some imagine the CANZUK as a community that allows free flow of goods and talent within the core group. Others call for a military alliance that pools the resources of CANZUK to play a more influential role in the Indo-Pacific.

A combined CANZUK will be one of the world’s large strategic entities with a GDP of nearly $6 trillion and a defence expenditure of $100 billion, which in theory could play a significant role in the world. Even if London pursues this vigorously, Canada, Australia and New Zealand will have to overcome much domestic political resistance to this venture.

In Delhi, the Anglosphere is quickly dismissed as a colonial construct. Those who let India’s colonial past overwhelm its current strategic judgements, however, do great injustice to Delhi’s gains in the international system, in absolute terms as well as relative to Britain. Five arguments present themselves in favour of the Anglosphere.

One, India’s aggregate GDP crossed that of Britain a couple of years ago but has fallen a bit below this year. Britain and India today are at roughly $2.7 trillion and occupy the fifth and sixth places in the GDP rankings. But India is well on its way to overtake Britain in the next few years and emerge as the third-largest economy in the world in the next decade.

Two, while the Indian elite continues to rant against colonial Britain in public, it relishes, in private, the deep comfort with the Anglo-Saxon elite. There is no such hypocrisy in the Indian middle classes that have unhesitatingly embraced the English speaking world. The US, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand remain the preferred Indian destinations for study, work and emigration.

Three, thanks to the relative openness of the Anglosphere, the Indian diaspora is thriving in these nations and is very much part of the political life in the English-speaking world. Kamala Harris will soon be sworn in as US Vice President. Three of Johnson’s cabinet rank ministers are Indian and four of Justin Trudeau’s ministers are of Indian origin. Indians are among the fastest-growing minorities in Australia and New Zealand.

Besides politics, Indians occupy countless positions in the national bureaucracies, private sector, and universities of the Anglosphere. The diaspora is of course a double-edged sword that cuts both ways as Trudeau’s domestic politics reminds us. But here is the reality: India is already tied deeply to the Anglosphere, whether Delhi wants it or not.

Four, two other factors are equally important — the emerging economic complementarity between India and the Anglosphere as well as the shared geopolitical interest in constructing a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. These imperatives have already nudged India into a greater bilateral commercial and security cooperation with the prospective members of the Anglosphere. The question is whether it can be elevated to the collective level. India is already engaged with the Five Eyes on select issues.

Five, the Indian elite could emulate the Chinese in transcending the colonial mindset. The Chinese Communist Party, which never stops talking about Britain’s Opium Wars, had come close to winning over Britain and the entire Anglosphere in recent years through the sheer power of its sustained economic investments, political engagement, and elite cultivation. It was Beijing’s overreach that has recently put-off large parts of the Anglosphere. Delhi today can deal with the Anglosphere on its own terms and for mutual benefit. Unlike China, India does not have to work too hard to realise the natural potential of its cooperation with the Anglosphere.

The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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