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New Zealand’s new Trade Minister Todd McClay’s one-day mission to India this week signals a renewed commitment to fortify its ties with the world’s fastest growing economy that is poised to be the world’s third largest by 2030. The visit, laden with historical references and diplomatic overtures, holds promise for clearing the dust off strong, old, albeit a tad neglected ties.

McClay’s invocation of the Gallipoli campaign, where Kiwi soldiers purportedly relied on Indian comrades’ chapatis for sustenance, highlights the deep historical ties between the two nations. While the anecdote might be a charming nod to shared sacrifices during World War I, it underscores the need for contemporary collaboration in trade and diplomacy.

NZ’s historical neglect of its relationship with India has been palpable, and McClay’s visit, though brief, is a step in the right direction. However, it raises comparisons about the depth of commitment compared to Australia’s recent endeavours. The stark contrast emerges when considering that half of the Albanese cabinet has spent time in India over the past little while, displaying a sustained and comprehensive approach that has already begun to pay rich dividends for Australian exports.

McClay’s aspirations for a transformative year in the NZ-India relationship are commendable, especially as he envisions formalising partnerships in key international agreements. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), ASEAN-Australia-NZ Free Trade Area (AANZFTA), and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) are pivotal avenues for collaboration. McClay’s urgency in pushing for these agreements signals a newfound seriousness in Wellington’s approach to New Delhi.

McClay’s mission, straight of the bat after the National led government was formed, could well be seen as Prime Minister Christopher Luxon walking the talk following his repeated emphasis on enhancing trade and diplomatic ties with India. The call for a bilateral relationship with partnership at its core suggests a commitment to mutual benefit. However, actions will speak louder than words, and NZ must translate its aspirations into tangible initiatives that resonate with India’s economic ambitions.

Former Niti Ayog head Amitabh Kant’s endorsement of collaboration in the agriculture sector reflects the potential for synergies between the two nations in this hitherto contentious sector. While India expresses protective sentiments about its farmers, the suggestion of collaboration with Fonterra and the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) opens avenues for strategic partnerships. NZ’s advanced dairy sector could offer valuable insights to India, fostering growth and innovation. This realisation isn’t new but precious little progress has been achieved in this regard.

McClay’s meeting with counterpart Piyush Goyal adds weight to the diplomatic endeavours, where he conveyed NZ’s intent to elevate the bilateral relationship. However, the brevity of the seemingly hurriedly put together visit will have to be followed up with substance in the coming months and years. NZ would do well to take a leaf out of Australia’s playbook in investing time and resources in rebuilding the relationship at multiple levels. NZ must recognise the need for sustained, high-level interaction to truly foster a robust partnership.

The one-day visit signifies a belated but essential step in revitalising the relationship. The historical ties, coupled with aspirations for formal partnerships, demonstrate a positive shift. However, the contrast with Australia’s more comprehensive approach underscores the urgency for New Zealand to invest more time, resources, and sustained effort in building a substantive and enduring alliance with India. The chapati camaraderie, while symbolic, must evolve into a robust collaboration that spans sectors and withstands the test of time.

The chapati camaraderie, while symbolic, must evolve into a robust collaboration that spans sectors and withstands the test of time. As NZ navigates these uncharted waters, the challenges and opportunities in forging a stronger bond with India are both immense and consequential. A helping of Rogan Josh to go with the chapati, perhaps?

First appeared in the Indian Weekender of 23 December 2023