New Zealand foreign policy talk has been dominated by our ties with China – but are we neglecting a similarly high-powered country in India? Sam Sachdeva reports.

Even the most ardent Black Caps fan may have struggled to envisage a thumping ten-wicket win against India at the Basin Reserve.

But playing at home is one thing, and dealing with Indian conditions is another altogether – as Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters and Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker are set to find out.

Peters and Parker head to New Delhi and Mumbai this week, accompanied by a business delegation and intent on strengthening our political and business ties with India.

Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, the director of the New Zealand India Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington, says the pair will find plenty of goodwill – but more than a few areas for improvement.

An area of both great emphasis and great frustration has been efforts to win improved trade access for Kiwi exporters, either through a bilateral free trade agreement or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal.

There has been minimal movement on the bilateral front, with one official’s 2017 assessment of FTA talks being “on life support” still an accurate description given there have been no formal negotiations since 2015.

The news is no better for RCEP, with India’s decision last November to walk away from the deal spurred at least partly by fears of a flood of New Zealand dairy imports into the Indian market.

Such concerns are not unique to India – speaking to Newsroom, Peters recalls facing protests from farmers in Brazil and South Korea during previous visits and says New Zealand has to show that it can supplement, not supplant, the domestic market.

“When people own two or three or four cows and they’re looking at our situation, they can be unnecessarily alarmed – our job is to write a script that can convince the local people that they have nothing to fear.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters says it is India, not the rest of the world, that suffers from its protectionist approach to trade. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Rather than focusing efforts on a sweeping FTA, Bandyopadhyay suggests we should instead look at sector by sector agreements, moving ahead in less contentious areas such as technological exchanges and aviation.

Peters agrees that there is “some serious merit” in making incremental progress, rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach.

“It doesn’t mean on RCEP we’ll give up, maybe we’ll just press on without India, but we’ll do our best to persuade India in, for in the end, pulling up the walls and closing the shop will be of enormous damage to India and not the other way around.”

Then there is the education market – although in the wake of the 2016 Indian student visa scandal, Bandyopadhyay offers an obvious note of caution.

“We have to change the way we market our education in India, and what is needed is value proposition – that the New Zealand degree is valuable in itself, rather than just as a kind of pathway to immigration, and with a New Zealand degree students can go anywhere in the world.”

Immigration has become a sensitive issue in the relationship, particularly with the Indian diaspora in New Zealand.

Changes to the partnership visa process made last year, making it harder for those in culturally arranged marriages to bring their partners here, led to accusations of racism – not helped by New Zealand First minister Shane Jones accusing opponents of “a Bollywood overreaction” – and a U-turn of sorts by the Government.

Fortunately for New Zealand, Bandyopadhyay says, the issue did not gain any meaningful traction in Indian media, limiting damage to the bilateral relationship.

Peters brushes off the domestic outcry, suggesting immigration policy has not been brought up in his trips offshore and only by the “woke generation” here.

Person-to-person links left wanting

But there are genuine concerns at home about whether New Zealand is doing enough to nurture and strengthen the relationship.

At a gathering of experts last week to discuss Indian foreign policy, hosted by the Asia New Zealand Foundation under Chatham House conditions, several participants cited the lack of political visits to India as New Zealand’s single biggest shortcoming.

The visit of Peters and Parker is the first major bilateral trip by a Government minister since the coalition took office in October 2017 (while Minister of State for Trade Damien O’Connor visited India last October, that was largely geared towards RCEP discussions).

The National Party stole a march of sorts on the Government last September, when leader Simon Bridges visited India with foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee and the party’s Sikh MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi.

Speaking to Newsroom, Brownlee says there is “somewhat unlimited” potential to grow ties with India but little sign that the Government has any burning desire to do so.

“I hope they are able to pull something out of the fire around the RCEP deal but it looks somewhat forlorn – I don’t think they’ve made the effort they need to.”

While there is a sizeable and growing Indian population here, Brownlee argues that has not been accompanied by the interpersonal links that most would expect.

In discussions with members of think tanks aligned to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP), he got the sense that “the understanding of New Zealand is quite positive, but…not necessarily top of mind”.

National’s foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee suggests New Zealand and India could cooperate more closely when it comes to military operations. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Sunil Kaushal, head of strategic relations at the India New Zealand Business Council, notes the need for “enhanced ministerial-level interactions with their counterparts in India to build personal rapport and trust with each other”.

Bandyopadhyay also emphasises the importance of personal relationships, saying: “In order to develop a long term sustainable relationship with India, you have to be there for the long haul and you have to have patience – I mean things do not happen quickly in India, it takes time.”

Peters defends the Government’s engagement to date, noting he has met several times with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at international fora, but concedes the dual ministerial visit is not without symbolic value.

“Well that’s one of the reasons why we’re doing a joint trade visit, myself and David Parker, because our intention is to let the Indians know we’re serious and we’ve got to be.”

Of course, there is more to be gained than just increased trade flows.

Brownlee, a former defence minister, cites military cooperation as one area for potential gains, noting the possibility of joint operations to maintain freedom of navigation through maritime shipping lanes.

“We come from the same military traditions and India has a very competent military, a very competent navy, and they actually bought patrol boats off Hamilton Jet in New Zealand because they have so much coastline and so many river tributaries…I can’t help thinking that there must be other opportunities for us to engage with them.”

For his part, Peters mentions nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament as one likely topic of discussion, along with the need to ease tensions in Kashmir.

But just as important as what is discussed, notes Bandyopadhyay, is when it is next followed up.

“It should not be the next Foreign Minister visiting after an interval of three, four years…there will have to be continuous exchanges to carry on the momentum.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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