Britain and India aim for free trade deal by October, says Johnson

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By Andrew MacAskill and Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -Britain and India agreed on Friday to step up defence and business cooperation during a visit to New Delhi by Boris Johnson, who said a bilateral free-trade deal could be wrapped up by October.

On his first visit to the Indian capital as UK prime minister, Johnson discussed with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi ways to boost security ties with India, which buys more than half of its military hardware from Russia.

India's foreign secretary, however, said Johnson did not put pressure on Modi over New Delhi's position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"Prime Minister Johnson shared his perspective on it, Prime Minister Modi shared ours - which is that the Russia-Ukraine war should end immediately," Harsh Vardhan Shringla told reporters. "There was no pressure of any kind."

India abstained from a United Nations vote condemning the invasion of Ukraine and unlike Britain and other Western nations has not imposed sanctions on Moscow, which calls Russia's actions in Ukraine a "special military operation".

Johnson said after meeting Modi it was unlikely India would end its long-standing ties with Russia.

"The position on Russia that the Indians have historically is well known. They are not going to change that, of course, that's true," he told a press conference on the final day of his two-day trip.

"But they can see what is going on and there is an increasing appetite to do more with the UK."

Johnson, who is under political pressure at home for breaking his own lockdown rules during the pandemic, said negotiators from the two countries were expected to complete a free-trade deal by the end of this year.

"We're telling our negotiators to get it done by Diwali in October. This could double our trade and investments by the end of the decade," he said.

DEFENCE TECH

Johnson said Britain would support India’s goal of building its own fighter jets, to reduce expensive imports of military equipment. India now has a mix of Russian, British and French fighter jets.

The Indian government last year gave a 480-billion-rupee ($6.28 billion) contract https://pib.gov.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1694844 to state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd for 83 light-combat aircraft, Tejas, for delivery starting around 2023.

The United States last month offered India more defence and energy sales, after President Joe Biden called India "somewhat shaky" in acting against Russia.

Johnson said Britain was also creating an India-specific open general export license to slash delivery times for defence items. Only the European Union and the United States currently have such licences.

Foreign Secretary Shringla said India could seek Britain's support on electric propulsion systems for naval ships and jet propulsion systems for planes. The focus was on "co-development and co-production" of defence equipment, he said.

But Mohan Guruswamy, a director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi, said India would remain reliant on Russian military equipment, partly because it is cheaper.

"Russia's offer to India is always that 'Our cupboard is open', (but) Britain doesn’t offer India everything it wants and what it does make available is usually more expensive," he said.

Johnson said a free-trade agreement would help India sell more rice and textiles to Britain.

British trade with India, the world's second-most populous country with nearly 1.4 billion people, was worth 23 billion pounds ($29.93 billion) in 2019, much lower than the UK's trade with some much smaller economies such as Ireland.

Johnson said that during his trip he had felt like Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar, as hundreds of people lined the streets and dozens of billboards depicted his image.

"I had an amazing reception," he said. "My face was everywhere to be seen."

($1=0.7685 pounds)

($1 = 76.4125 Indian rupees)

(Additional reporting by Rama Venkat and Nallur Sethuraman in Bengaluru; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Susan Fenton)

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