Opinion & Analysis

Time is ripe for enhanced India-New Zealand ties

India’s foreign policy priorities make now the best time to change gears in the New Zealand-India relationship, writes Sandeep Singh.

OPINION: On 9 January every year, the celebratory event of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) marks the contributions of overseas Indian communities towards the development of India.

The PBD, which was established in 2003, has traditionally given the Indian government an opportunity to engage with the global Indian diaspora.

India’s engagement with the world, meanwhile, is guided by the Act East Policy, which has formed a key part of its foreign policy since 1991.

While outreach to Indian diasporic groups around the world has been a key plank of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy, there appears to be a greater intensification and consolidation of the individual policy goals.

Inaugural Parliamentarian Conference of People of Indian Origin, Jan 9

Kiwi-Indian parliamentarians attended the inaugural Parliamentarian Conference of People of Indian Origin held in New Delhi on January 9.

This year, the Modi government used the opportunity to advance its Act East goals by celebrating its diasporic connections in the region.

A regional PBD celebration was organised in Singapore, a nation that India sees as a bridge between India and Southeast Asia, and as its gateway to the broader east.

The 7 January event was planned to coincide with the 25th anniversary of India’s partnership with ASEAN – the 10-member regional bloc and economic powerhouse that underpins India’s vision towards East.

India’s commitment towards the ASEAN relationship was reaffirmed by Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, who attended the event in Singapore after visiting Thailand and Indonesia as a part of a three-nation regional tour.

“For India, ASEAN leadership and centrality is essential for peace and prosperity for the rapidly changing Indo-Pacific region,” Swaraj said during the opening address of the ASEAN-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas event, which was also attended by other key Indian ministers, and a battery of high-level bureaucrats, members of academia, and think-tank leaders.

Modi is set to travel to Singapore later this year to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the region's premier defence summit, on 1 June.

A way to deepen the NZ-India relationship

These developments should be of interest to foreign policy planners in New Zealand, a country geographically located towards India’s East and which hosts a sizeable and vibrant population of the Indian diaspora – two characteristics at the centre of current Indian strategic thinking.

New Zealand offers an increasingly strategic and diasporic impetus to foreign policy planners in New Delhi to call for greater engagement between both nations – the benefits of which could spill into the protracted India-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations.

Such an approach could help both countries move away from the current fixation on FTA talks and explore other avenues of enhancing bilateral ties.

Convergence of strategic interests in the emerging ‘Indo-Pacific’ region and the diasporic connections provide far better-nuanced areas of cooperation between New Zealand and India.

This is the best time to change gears in the New Zealand-India relationship, if both parties are able to capitalise on the opportunities becoming available.

During the bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit last year, PM Jacinda Ardern personally extended an invite to her Indian counterpart for a visit to New Zealand – an invitation which was “very warmly received” by PM Modi, Ardern told the Indian Weekender in December.

Ardern’s astute understanding of the importance of the Indian diaspora in the current government’s strategic thinking was also on full display in her talks with the Indian prime minister when she invoked diasporic connections between the two countries.

“I specifically mentioned about the [Indian] community that I worked amongst here in Mt Albert and gave him a sense of how warmly he will be received,” Ardern told the Indian Weekender.

Now there is an expectation from foreign policy bureaucrats of both countries to pursue and materialise the promises exchanged at the top levels.

An inward high-level visit from India has a great potential to galvanise the Indian diaspora in New Zealand, creating a mutual win-win outcome for both nations.

Sandeep Singh is editor of the Indian Weekender, the largest English-language newspaper for Indian communities in New Zealand.

– Asia Media Centre