Credit: Original article can be found here
Dileepa Fonseka is a Stuff writer on business and politics.
ANALYSIS: If you want a relatable analogy for New Zealand’s relations with India, just think of them as being in a similar state to our capital city of Wellington – not bad, not excellent, just stuck.
Late last year, we published our final 2022 edition of The Monitor, focused on exploring New Zealand’s future economic relationship with Asia.
* How free Is New Zealand’s trade?
* Death of a free trade agreement: New approach urged on India New Zealand relations
* Australian media has ‘perception issue’, Jacinda Ardern says after 60 Minutes’ NZ-China probe
* Why New Zealand businesses should look to India for new opportunities
It included a breakdown of why New Zealand was falling behind Australia in forging a better trading relationship with India – an economy projected to be larger than the that of the United States in coming decades.
Since then, some India experts have come forward with their own off-the-record insights into why the countries seem to be stuck in a little bit of a diplomatic rut, and how both countries might dig their way out of it.
The future of the India-New Zealand relationship is of huge interest to New Zealand’s business community, and that has fuelled some political interest too.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon channelled some of that dissatisfaction when he gave a speech on the topic of New Zealand’s trading relationship with India at the Northern Club in April.
“We haven’t had a round of [trade] negotiations since Labour came to Government, we haven’t sent a minister to India since early 2020,” Luxon said.
“Before Covid, the Government had only sent ministers to India on two occasions, and meanwhile in the last four years, Scott Morrison has sent ministers to India five times – including himself.”
However, things have improved: Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited New Zealand, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta singled India out as a priority relationship for New Zealand, Trade Minister Damien O’Connor paid a visit to India, and Food Safety Minister Meka Whaitiri spoke at the International Dairy Summit in New Delhi then told Te Ao Maori news that Whaitiri’s Indian counterpart could make a reciprocal visit this year too.
But these are baby steps compared to what is happening across the Tasman where Australia is moving full-steam ahead: the Australia-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) came into force on December 29, both nations are part of the Quad defence arrangement, and Australian PM Anthony Albanese was invited to visit India in March where he’s hoping to sign another trade agreement that makes our own diplomatic efforts look poor.
Compare this to New Zealand’s attempts to forge a relationship with India in more recent decades, which have been plagued by misunderstandings and missteps.
For starters, Indian officials don’t seem to get New Zealand’s obsession with trade tariffs.
From an Indian perspective, New Zealand is a small, developed country, and countries of this type generally don’t care too much about tariffs because their size means they have to export high-value products rather than high-volume ones.
Plus, New Zealand is making money in the Indian market even with such tariffs in place. The Alliance co-operative’s Pure South Lamb is on the menu of 340 five-star hotels across 25 cities in India and is seen as a delicacy.
In this context, politicians in India ask why they should risk their chance of re-election over an issue that shouldn’t matter to New Zealand.
Then there are the missteps. Indian officials seem a little miffed that India wasn’t a higher priority for an early diplomatic visit, and see it as a little insulting that top-level New Zealand officials and politicians only seem to visit the country when they are on their way out.
Former Prime Minister John Key resigned shortly after visiting India, Deputy PM Winston Peters was ousted from Parliament the year he visited and even former Chief of Defence Tim Keating left his post shortly after his India trip.
Questions of fairness around the movement of people are another big one for India, and the country is currently going around the world signing labour mobility agreements with fairness assurances built-in.
Jaishankar himself raised questions around fairness to Indian international students here. New Zealand took on foreign students from India who had to borrow money in order to pay for their courses, but some were never let back in after that first lockdown – or even later when the borders fully reopened – leaving them with large debts, an incomplete education, and no way to pay off their debts.
New Zealand has also not signed up to India’s International Solar Alliance for the development of solar technology – which is of great importance to India’s political establishment ever since it was announced with great fanfare by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015.
So far, 102 countries have signed up – including Australia, Britain, the United States, France, the Netherlands and Japan – but New Zealand is not one of them.
None of the reasons why the relationship between India and New Zealand has stalled are irreconcilable or unsalvageable, but growing the relationship might well involve meeting India halfway on some of the things that are a priority to them too.