Friday, December 1, 2023

New dance steps in NZ-India relations

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Reset as two nations explore mutual benefits in agriculture, education and more.
Longtime trade negotiator Stephen Jacobi welcomed a fresh start to the NZ-India relationship, in tough global times.
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New Zealand has acknowledged that it needs a new approach to relations with India, with a long-term relationship built on stronger mutual benefits likely to deliver greater returns than any a quick free trade agreement.

Agriculture and Trade Minister Damien O’Connor underscored his lessons on NZ-Indian diplomacy on his fourth visit to the sub-continent this week, and provided a four-point plan for a greater co-operation between the two countries.

“If we have learnt anything about the last 10 years, it is that a short-term narrow approach will not work,” he said.

The four priority areas he outlined are based heavily on a recent India-NZ Business Council report that confirmed NZ has significant work to do in its relations with the fast-developing, populous country.

“We can learn from our Aussie mates. Sustained contact between ministers at all levels has been the key,” O’Connor said. Australia this year secured a free trade agreement with India that has 85% of Australian exports there now tariff free.

The first of the four priority areas involves building better relationships through greater diplomatic and business level contact, which could involve an annual NZ-India business summit, similar to the one held with China every year.

“This will galvanise government action and attract senior leaders.”

Better air connections are another high priority area, and O’Connor intended to meet with the CEO of Air India while in New Delhi. 

Having a direct link between Auckland and Delhi would put the sub-continent on an equal footing with the rest of NZ’s vital Asian trading partners.

The third priority area is in building capability, and O’Connor said work planned between Zespri and India’s kiwifruit growers may provide a good template for others to follow.

Education and investment by NZ institutions to help India build its own education sector in partnership arrangements is also seen as vital. 

O’Connor cited the NZ Centre at the India Institute of Technology in Delhi as a good example of an institution funded by NZ universities and aiming to promote more research projects between students of both countries.

He also emphasised the importance of ensuring that the student traffic is not all one-way to NZ, with a need for more NZ students to study in India.

“We have scholarships, but the numbers are not great. It is something that we have to work on.”

A common concern among delegates has been the time taken and funds required for students to gain approval to study in NZ. One cited a cost of $100,000 required to be held in bond for six months, and a six-month time frame to confirmation. 

As of April this year, Australia had 95,000 Indian students studying there. NZ has only 1600.

Australia and Canada are offering significantly lower student charges, with quicker turnaround times, amid claims that NZ is losing out to these countries in the competition for foreign students.

O’Connor pointed to India representing a “high-risk market” for fraud, reflected in the high fees. The government would like to reduce that risk.

He referred to the Colombo Plan, founded in 1951, as a good example of an education venture that could advance both countries mutually.

Indian foreign trade official Kaushlendra Singh confirmed that agriculture, tourism, education and medical tech are key areas that India is keen to partner in.

Possible imports NZ could consider from India include refined petroleum, the country’s biggest export, along with pharmaceuticals, cellular technology and textiles.

Longtime trade veteran Stephen Jacobi heralded the delegation as the start of a different journey to that begun by earlier free trade efforts, and one embarked on under globally dire circumstances of war, pandemic and inflation.

On the latest trip, NZ was also reminded by Indian trade officials that dairy access to India is not entirely blocked, with certain processed dairy products offering an alternative pathway into the market.

Earl Rattray, NZ dairy industry leader and past chair of the India-NZ Business Council, welcomed the reset in the countries’ relationship.

“I have long been wanting to see greater engagement by the NZ government.”

He told O’Connor he did not believe the momentum would have happened without his support.

*Richard Rennie travelled to Delhi with the India-NZ Business Council trade delegation, with funding from Asia New Zealand Foundation and Zespri.

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