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As New Zealand ushers in a new government under the leadership of Prime Minister Chris Luxon, there is an unsettling cloud of uncertainty hanging over the country’s foreign policy, in relation to its stance on India. The recent statements by the outgoing administration regarding India could jeopardise Luxon’s stated plans for bolstering ties with the world’s largest democracy. The timing of these remarks, in conjunction with possible pressure from the Five Eyes alliance, raises several concerning questions about the motives behind this sudden shift in NZ’s usual practice of staying silent on contentious international issues.

New Zealand and Australia expressed their concerns about India during a recent meeting of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. This marked the first instance of a public collective discussion concerning India. While the alliance initially convened to discuss China’s theft of intellectual property, the focus shifted to India, raising eyebrows about the underlying motivations for such an abrupt change.

This sudden shift in NZ’s stance toward India came after a request from other Five Eyes members, particularly Canada, to address India’s actions. Canada, in the week prior, withdrew a significant number of its diplomats from India following India’s withdrawal of diplomatic immunity to them. This decision was based on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusation that India was involved in Canadian Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s murder in that country.

It’s important to note that the initial response from Western nations to Trudeau’s allegations against India was remarkably muted. This restraint was driven by India’s strategic significance as a counterweight to China and coincided with the G20 summit hosted by India. Trudeau had attempted to push for a joint statement condemning India at the summit, but his efforts were met with resistance from his Western allies. These events paint a complex backdrop to NZ’s recent actions.

The question that arises is: Why has NZ chosen this seemingly inopportune time to make such statements about India? Is it possible that NZ is merely succumbing to pressure from the Five Eyes alliance? India has repeatedly asked for concrete proof to substantiate the allegations against it, yet none has been presented thus far. Is it possible that Western nations, including NZ, possess more information than they are willing to disclose at this moment?

Or is there an hidden agenda to hold on to the information until the run up to the 2024 Indian elections begins, to embarrass the ruling administration?

The situation is further complicated by the fact that NZ has consistently held a diplomatic and largely non-aligned foreign policy stance. However, its recent alignment with other Five Eyes members against India could damage its reputation as an impartial and balanced actor on the international stage.

As we delve into these questions, it becomes clear that the timing of NZ’s statements is concerning, and the implications could be far-reaching. Prime Minister Luxon, who has expressed his intentions to strengthen ties with India, now faces a major distraction. After decades, it was for the first time that an NZ administration stated in clear terms about strengthening trade and other ties with India. The outgoing administration’s statements might well end up throwing a spanner in Luxon’s India works.

NZ’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) expressed concern over India’s demand for Canada to reduce its diplomatic presence, underscoring the need for diplomacy rather than less engagement. This is a sensible stance, given that diplomacy should always be the preferred means of resolving international disputes.

The lack of concrete evidence against India and the sensitivity of the situation in South Asia make NZ’s rather late echoing of the alliance members concerns a precarious choice that it has made in relation to its intention to improve and build on the relationship with India. It remains to be seen how Luxon will navigate NZ’s India relationship.

But one thing is clear: these decisions have the potential to reverberate for a long time to come.

First published in the 2 November 2023 edition of the Indian Weekender