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As Foreign Minister Winston Peters embarks on his journey to India next week, it seems that New Zealand is still adrift in the vast sea of uncertainty when it comes to defining its relationship with India. Despite the touted potential and mutual goodwill, the lack of a clear strategy from New Zealand’s end leaves it grappling in murky waters, uncertain of both direction and purpose.

Peters’ upcoming visit to India marks the second official foray by a minister of the new coalition government, following Trade Minister Todd McClay’s fleeting visit pre-Christmas. Unfortunately, McClay’s visit seemed more like a token gesture to fulfil electoral promises rather than a substantive step toward fostering a robust relationship with India. Regrettably, Peters’ forthcoming visit appears to be echoing a similar lack of clarity and purpose.

The question begs: What does New Zealand aim to achieve from these diplomatic engagements? Peters’ rhetoric echoes the same worn-out phrases about India’s economic growth, friendly ties, and geopolitical importance. While these statements hold undeniable truths, they fall short of articulating a coherent strategy or vision for New Zealand’s engagement with India or any desired outcomes from this relationship.

At the heart of the matter lies a conspicuous absence of a well-defined agenda. What does New Zealand bring to the table in this relationship beyond acknowledging India’s economic prowess and geopolitical influence? The absence of a clear answer to this question is glaring and disconcerting.

India, as the fastest-growing major economy and a rising global power, presents abundant opportunities for collaboration across various sectors. Yet, New Zealand’s approach appears to be reactive rather than proactive, lacking the foresight and initiative required to capitalise on these opportunities effectively.

Peters’ visit, while undoubtedly significant, risks being overshadowed by its lack of substance and strategic vision. Mere diplomatic niceties and platitudes will do little to propel the Indo-Kiwi relationship forward. Instead, what is needed is a comprehensive and forward-thinking approach that delineates clear objectives and outlines tangible steps for cooperation.

New Zealand’s engagement with India cannot be limited to sporadic ministerial visits or superficial exchanges of pleasantries. It demands a sustained and concerted effort, backed by a well-articulated strategy that encompasses trade, investment, education, technology, and cultural exchanges.

One of the fundamental pillars of successful diplomacy is mutual understanding and respect. New Zealand must invest in fostering deeper cultural and people-to-people ties with India to underpin its diplomatic efforts. Initiatives such as educational exchanges, cultural festivals, and business delegations can serve as catalysts for forging stronger bonds between our two nations.

Addressing concerns that potentially mar the relationship such as unconscionable delays in granting visas to Indian students and discussing them openly with Indian counterparts would be a good start to confidence building measures.

Additionally, New Zealand must leverage its unique strengths and expertise to carve out a niche for itself in the Indian market. Whether it be in agriculture, renewable energy, education, or tourism, there are ample opportunities for New Zealand to showcase its capabilities and establish itself as a reliable partner for India.

Given India’s regional diversity and federal structure, it is imperative for New Zealand to engage not only with the central government but also with various states and regions. Peters’ visit to Gujarat is a step in the right direction, recognising the importance of sub-national diplomacy in fostering robust bilateral relations. It would also appeal to the large Gujarati diaspora in New Zealand, who have been resident in the country for over a century and are well resourced both financially and with strong links back home in their flourishing state.

New Zealand finds itself at a critical juncture in its relationship with India. While the potential for collaboration and mutual benefit is immense, it is imperative for New Zealand to chart a clear course of action guided by a well-defined strategy. Mere rhetoric and diplomatic gestures will no longer suffice; concrete steps and sustained engagement are the need of the hour. As Peters embarks on his journey to India, let it be a clarion call for New Zealand to navigate the waters of Indo-Kiwi relations with purpose, clarity, and resolve. The time for ambiguity, waffling and indecision is over; the time for strategic action is now. For far too long has New Zealand placed its India relationship on the back burner.

First appeared in the Indian Weekender of 7 March 2024