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Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters’ recent visit to India, intended to bolster ties between the two nations, has ignited both praise and controversy. Amidst discussions spanning trade, security, and cultural exchange, Peters’ remarks on the sensitive issue of a Sikh leader’s killing in Canada have stirred debate. However, rather than viewing this incident as a setback, it presents an opportunity for a nuanced re-evaluation of India-New Zealand relations.

The focal point of contention arose when Peters, in an interview with The Indian Express, expressed scepticism regarding conclusive evidence linking Indian agents to the assassination of a Sikh separatist in Canada. His cautious stance, perceived by some as questioning the credibility of Canada’s allegations, raised eyebrows because it potentially alluded to New Zealand not singing from the same song sheet as the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, of which Canada and New Zealand are members. Others saw it as something that might be music to India’s ears amidst the mostly veiled accusations it has received from Canada.

On the contrary, Peters’ remarks, though initially interpreted as provocative, signal a commitment to transparency and accountability within the Five Eyes alliance. His insistence on tangible evidence before drawing conclusions exemplifies the principles of fair judgment and impartiality—values fundamental to effective diplomatic discourse.

Peters’ subsequent clarification, reaffirming New Zealand’s unchanged stance on the matter and stressing the importance of allowing ongoing criminal investigations to run their course, demonstrates a commitment to international norms and legal processes. By urging restraint and patience, Peters underscores the significance of preserving diplomatic integrity amidst complex geopolitical dynamics.

The reactions to Peters’ comments underscore the intricacies inherent in diplomatic relations, particularly in matters concerning security and international cooperation. Indeed, the controversy surrounding Peters’ remarks presents an opportunity for introspection and recalibration. Rather than viewing it as a diplomatic misstep, it should rather be seen as a catalyst for deeper engagement and understanding between India and New Zealand. By addressing contentious issues with candour and diplomacy, both nations can foster a relationship grounded in mutual respect and cooperation.

Peters’ visit to India, characterised by high-level meetings and discussions spanning various sectors, signifies a broader commitment to enhancing bilateral ties. From discussions on strategic security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region to exploring opportunities for economic partnership, the visit underscores a shared commitment to mutual growth and prosperity.

The Foreign Minister’s engagements with Indian officials, including External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar, reflect a mutual recognition of the strategic importance of India-New Zealand relations. By emphasising collaboration on issues ranging from climate change to trade and cultural exchange, both nations signal a desire for a multifaceted partnership rooted in shared values and aspirations.

Peters’ interactions with representatives from the dynamic state of Gujarat highlight the importance of engaging with Indian states to maximize economic cooperation and strategic alignment. A large part of the Indian diaspora in New Zealand hails from this western Indian state and many have made their home here for more than a century, while yet maintaining deep ties with their places of origin in the state. In that sense, choosing Gujarat as part of his India visit was eminently sensible. Also, as India continues its trajectory of economic growth and development, tapping into regional opportunities becomes imperative for fostering robust and sustainable bilateral relations.

Winston Peters’ comments may have sparked controversy, as they have done many times throughout his long political career in this country, but they also offer a valuable opportunity for reflection and dialogue especially with India. Relations between the two countries have flatlined for at least a decade particularly during the Labour years. With Winston Peters’ statesmanship, seniority and Mana, there is every chance that the relationship will now grow.

By navigating the complexities of international relations with diplomacy and pragmatism, both India and New Zealand can chart a course towards a more resilient and dynamic partnership. As Peters aptly stated, “New Zealand and India are two countries that can, should, and will be doing more together.”

First appeared in the Indian Weekender dated 21 March 2024