Opinion: Despite differences, NZ and India have much to gain through working together

Following this month's visit by India's Minister of External Affairs Subramanyam Jaishankar, the Foundation's director research and engagement Suzannah Jessep looks at the increasing importance of India to New Zealand, the two countries shared goals and some of the challenges facing the relationship.

Indian Minister of External Affairs Subramanyam Jaishankar being interviewed by the Foundation's Asia Media Centre

On 5 October 2022 the Indian Minister of External Affairs, Subramanyam Jaishankar, touched down in Aotearoa New Zealand, marking a historic and important moment in New Zealand-India relations. This was Minister Jaishankar’s first ever visit to New Zealand, but more importantly, the first in-coming visit by an Indian foreign minister in over two decades.

For a country on track to have the world’s largest population by 2030 and one of the world’s largest economies by 2050, and for a Minister regarded as one of the most erudite and experienced foreign envoys on the circuit right now, the visit was also notable for how little media coverage it generated.

Research conducted by the Asia New Zealand Foundation shows that New Zealanders consider India to be an important country and friendly towards New Zealand, but that they know very little about it.

Today, if you walk out onto the streets of New Zealand, statistically only 25 percent of adult New Zealanders – one in four – will say they know a ‘fair amount’ about South Asia (including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), compared to nearly 45 percent – close to one in two adults – feeling knowledgeable about North Asia. 

An infographic showing a map of Asia and how much New Zealanders report they know about each region

Only 25 percent of New Zealanders report knowing a 'fair amount' about India and South Asia

Building knowledge and familiarity of India, in the absence of a trade deal and frequent two-way travel, is going to take time and most importantly face-to-face contact with those shaping our futures. It was for this reason Minister Jaishankar’s visit was so critical; it allowed New Zealand’s decision makers and those with equities in the relationship a chance to sit down, share perspectives, ask questions, and find out where our interests and values align. It also allowed Minister Jaishankar the opportunity to hear and see for himself the shape and flow of New Zealand society and foreign policy.   

India is a country very clearly on the rise. Already representing one sixth of the world’s population; what India does and how it pursues its priorities, will be consequential to New Zealand. As such, it is important we invest time and energy in getting to know India and ensuring we have a good quality relationship that enables us to have free and frank conversations with each other. By having this, we have an opportunity to shape not only our bilateral fortunes, but also regional and global order.  

While India is New Zealand's 10th largest trading partner, we shouldn't hold our breath for a trade deal that includes dairy, Suzannah says

 Despite their vastly different sizes, New Zealand and India already share a number of important objectives. India is the world’s largest democracy and like New Zealand, is an active and vocal advocate for diplomacy and peace in our region. Responding to the climate crisis, growing our investment in renewable energy, and protecting critical resources like clean water for future generations are also shared objectives. Providing opportunities to our young people, growing our tech capability, and developing solutions to health problems like diabetes and the covid-19 pandemic are yet more examples.    

Equally, New Zealand is under no illusion that its bilateral relationship with India is going to become the “most important” or “the biggest” relationship, or that we are somehow going to crack a trade deal that includes dairy. This is just not going to happen. Both countries are, however, finding very interesting and genuine areas of connection, and there is warmth and enthusiasm on both sides to continue to bring together talented New Zealanders with their Indian counterparts and vice versa. 

A formal photo on a group of about 30 people of the NZ Government 2020 trade delegation to India

In February 2020, the Foundation's executive director was part of a trade delegation to India led by Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Minister David Parker

I had the opportunity to speak with Minister Jaishankar during his visit to New Zealand and asked him about his impressions of us. He spoke about our shared heritage as Commonwealth countries, our shared interests as maritime nations, and about the tremendous role our two peoples have played forging connections together in areas of sports, arts, business, technology and many others. He spoke with enthusiasm about the possibility of bringing our young people together through higher education, and about India’s vision to eventually become an exporter of higher education itself.

But he also talked about the very real challenges we are facing in a region increasingly defined by fragmentation, major power competition, rising authoritarianism, conflict, climate crisis, and sobering assessments of when we can expect things to get even worse. In short, we’re living in challenging times. We will of course continue to have our occasional differences with India, but it is clear we have much more to gain through working together. 


Listen to the podcast episode with Minister Jaishankar from the Asia Media Centre's podcast 'Asia Insight' here: