Four years ago the New Zealand government unveiled the first of its ‘NZ Inc’ Country Strategy Papers ‘Opening Doors to India’, which set the goal of having India as a ‘core trade, economic and political partner’ by the end of 2015. That time is now up but it is clear the intended goal remains far from met. Indeed, it’s not even close. As a participant in a recent track two dialogue organized by the New Zealand India Research Institute and the Observer Research Foundation put it, the relationship today is warm but ‘a little bit empty’. For all the platitudes about a shared tradition of parliamentary democracy and Commonwealth heritage, and our mutual love of cricket, the relationship looks shallow almost across the spectrum.
Take high level visits - a quick measure for the state of any political relationship. Helen Clark visited India in 2004 and John Key in 2011 (and another visit is in the pipeline for early 2016). Senior New Zealand Ministers including Tim Groser, Murray McCully and Stephen Joyce have trod the path to Delhi over the last few years. By contrast, the last Indian Prime Minister to visit New Zealand was Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. Narendra Modi’s decision to visit Australia and Fiji, but not New Zealand, during his 2014 Pacific tour, sent a clear if unfortunate message.
The strategic relationship has not done much better. Key’s visit in 2011 included a surprisingly strong statement on the importance of developing India-New Zealand defence links. Defence advisors were exchanged in 2011 (both are based in Canberra) but actual military to military interactions remain modest. Recent highlights include an NZDF Command and Staff College tour in late 2014, and a ship visit by Te Kaha on the way home from anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. An Indian officer attends New Zealand’s Command and Staff College and this year an NZDF officer has studied at the Indian National Defence College. New Zealand officials remain keen to deepen ties, but privately there is frustration at what is perceived to be a lack of reciprocal enthusiasm in India.
Some participants in the track two meeting saw opportunities to collaborate more closely in the future. Delhi’s declaration that it wants to play a larger role in the “Indo-Pacific” region would seem to augur well for closer cooperation on maritime issues, but as one analyst commented, for the time being, India’s focus seems to be largely “Indo” and not much “Pacific”. Although it is expanding its relationships in East Asia, India’s core interests remain in the zone from the Gulf to the Straits of Malacca.
The picture is not without its bright spots, particularly in the services sector. Tourism numbers continue to grow steadily. In the year to August 2015, visitors from India reached 43,000, up 25% on the previous year, although future growth is likely to be constrained by a lack of direct air links. Student numbers are also booming, with Indian student visa applications for September and October 2015 up 63% on the previous year. Education travel services represented New Zealand’s largest export to India in the year to September 2015, earning almost $500 million - an eight-fold increase from 2007. Indians also now represent New Zealand’s largest group of skilled migrants. People-to-people links seem to be marching well ahead of the political relationship. But even this good news has not been without complications, including much-publicized problems with visa fraud and allegations of exploitation.
That New Zealand is not a priority relationship for India is entirely understandable. After all, with 1.2 billion people, the third largest economy in the world, and a growing place on the world stage, India has plenty of suitors. But the lack of engagement is curious when it is set against NZ’s ties with the region’s other great powers. In October, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee announced a five-year plan of defence engagement with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). New Zealand’s military contacts with Washington are back to a new normal, with the likelihood of a US Navy visit next year. Ties with Japan have also advanced to become a ‘strategic cooperative partnership’ including the signing of a 2013 Memorandum of Intent on enhanced New Zealand-Japan defence cooperation. Clearly, these powers see value in a political relationship with New Zealand that far exceeds this country’s economic or military heft. Persuading India that it should do the same will be a challenge for Mr. Key when he visits Delhi next year.
David Capie participated in the India-New Zealand track two dialogue in Delhi in November, co-hosted by the New Zealand India Research Institute and the Observer Research Foundation. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any individuals or institutions associated with the dialogue. He can be contacted on David.Capie@vuw.ac.nz