By Jenny Gross

NEW DELHI -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said she would make it easier for Indian businesspeople to travel to Britain, as she arrived in India for her first trip focused on expanding trade once the U.K. leaves the European Union.

As Britain maps out plans to withdraw from the bloc, backers of its exit argue the country has plenty of other trade options and will have the flexibility to hammer out deals quickly. With its historic ties to Britain and rapidly growing economy, India is seen as a key opportunity, and the expedited entry for businesspeople is part of plans to ensure the U.K. remains one of the most attractive countries for business post-Brexit.But as Mrs. May seeks to strengthen economic ties over the two-day trip, she will likely have to grapple with demands from the Indian government for much bigger concessions on immigration -- an issue at the heart of Britons' decision to leave the European Union.

Mrs. May defended Britain's approach to issuing visas for Indians, saying the system worked well.

"We have a visa system for countries outside the European Union which ensures the brightest and the best are able to come to the United Kingdom," Mrs. May said. "Nine out of 10 visa applications from India are already accepted."

Vikas Swarup, a spokesman for the Indian government, said New Delhi had raised concerns about the difficulties faced by Indians wanting to study in the U.K. and that he expects the issues will be raised during Mrs. May's visit.

Relaxing restrictions on visas for Indians who want to work and study in the U.K. would be a huge concession forMrs. May, who on Sunday reiterated that a key reason underpinning the U.K.'s vote to leave the bloc was frustration over Britain's lack of control over immigration. "I believe it's important for the U.K. government to deliver on that," she said.

Vince Cable, a former government minister from the EU-friendly Liberal Democrat party who was involved in long-running, stalled trade talks between the EU and India, said the U.K. was one of the major stumbling blocks. Mrs. May, who was home secretary at the time, was instrumental in pushing the U.K. line that it wouldn't make it easier for Indians to work in Britain. Another obstacle was reluctance from both the EU and India to reduce barriers to their agricultural markets.

"Given her position on immigration is even harder now than it was before, it's impossible to see how we can get an agreement with India which is remotely attractive," Mr. Cable said.

India's caution toward international trade mirrors a similar trend around the world, including in the U.S., where both presidential candidates have expressed skepticism. India has lagged behind its neighbors in lowering barriers to international trade, and in 2014, it threatened to derail a World Trade Organization deal that would simplify global customs procedures. Mrs. May said there is a need to promote the benefits of free trade in the wake of criticism about international trade.

Any free-trade deal with India would take years to implement, and the U.K. can't finalize any deals until it leaves the EU, which is on course to happen in 2019. Mrs. May said the government has strong legal arguments that it would take to the Supreme Court in its appeal of a ruling by a U.K. court last week. The ruling, which said Mrs. May must get parliamentary approval before formally beginning Brexit, could potentially delay her plans to start talks by March.

Anand Menon, European politics professor at King's College London, said India will want to wait and see how the U.K.'s trade talks with the EU play out before getting into detailed negotiations. Indian companies -- the third-largest source of foreign direct investment into the U.K. -- have used investments in the U.K. as a jumping off point to the European market.

"It would be naive to think anyone would finalize a deal with us until they know what it means for their ability to use us as a base to reach the European market," Mr. Menon said.

--Niharika Mandhana contributed to this article.

Write to Jenny Gross at jenny.gross@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 06, 2016 19:15 ET (00:15 GMT)

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