Last week, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar visited New Zealand, where he met with his counterpart Nanaia Mahuta as well as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. There is clearly a broader political context to Jaishankar’s visit to New Zealand, but the trip was also about strengthening the bilateral relationship between the two countries.
Traditionally, India has had a friendly if not particularly warm relationship with New Zealand. India’s development of nuclear weapons and the 1998 Pokhran tests negatively affected the relationship because of New Zealand’s aversion to nuclear weapons. In fact, despite being a party to the ANZUS security alliance along with the United States and Australia, the presence of U.S. nuclear warships resulted in major disputes leading to legislation that declared all of New Zealand a nuclear-free zone, effectively prohibiting U.S. nuclear-powered ships from entering any of New Zealand’s ports. Public opinion on the issue was also pretty clear in support of the government policy that came up with the legislation. Given this antipathy toward nuclear weapons, New Zealand issued statements criticizing India’s nuclear tests in 1998.
But the changing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific and beyond offer India and New Zealand a fresh opportunity to revive the relationship, both on the bilateral level and in the broader context. In fact, New Zealand formulated a new forward-looking strategy document, “India-New Zealand 2025: Investing in the Relationship” during then-New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters’ visit to India in February 2020. The strategy document built on earlier policy papers and looked at forging “a more ‘enduring strategic relationship’ with India over the next five years.” While the visit was a successful one, the strategy hit the wall with the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing severe lockdowns in both countries.
Jaishankar’s visit is yet another opportunity to reexamine the state of relations and ways to enhance the quality of their engagements. In fact, Jaishankar stated that the India-New Zealand relationship “is due for an update, is due for a refresh,” adding that “there are so many challenges, so many possibilities which are important for countries like India and New Zealand to think openly with an engaging approach to help ourselves and help the world.” Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta also expressed similar sentiments, stating that the “reopening of borders has provided a timely opportunity to re-engage with India.”
While inaugurating a new Indian Chancery in Wellington, Jaishankar said that he raised with the New Zealand foreign minister some of the difficulties faced by Indian students in New Zealand following the pandemic. He said while no one had it easy during the pandemic, “students perhaps took a bigger hit than most of us. So, I urged the prime minister and the foreign minister to take a sympathetic view and understanding of students who enter and I was glad to be assured that they would approach the issue sympathetically.” He also raised the issue of hastening the visa issuing process for those Indian students who are waiting to go to New Zealand for their studies. He also spoke about the need to build better and direct air connectivity between the two countries.
The two ministers discussed contemporary geopolitics, exploring ways in which both India and New Zealand can shape the evolving security dynamics in the region. Climate action and climate justice as well as maritime security and the international solar alliance also figured prominently in their discussions. One of the areas that could see immediate progress is the India-New Zealand Mobility Agreement, where Mahuta said that “we are changing immigration settings to attract high-skilled migrants with a clear pathway to residency for globally hard-to-fill roles. We anticipate there could be opportunities for high-skilled migrants from India through the green list, such as dairy farm managers and ICT roles.” Similarly, New Zealand has expressed its interest in joining the International Solar Alliance that was established by India and France in 2015.
Now to the broader context. India’s relationship with New Zealand and Australia is particularly important in the context of the Pacific Island region, which is becoming another center of geopolitics given the growing Chinese footprint in the islands. While Australia and New Zealand have traditionally played a dominant role in the region, China appears intent at upsetting the apple cart. That China has been expanding its presence in the region with various funding options for the island countries has made Beijing an attractive partner to these countries. This has pushed the two regional powers as well as India and other big players explore options to strengthen their own stakes in the region.
The intensifying geopolitical competition in the Pacific Islands is becoming an important driver for all the major powers to re-energize their engagements. But the Pacific Island nations are also careful not to get sucked into the rapidly changing geopolitics. The region has so far pushed back on China’s efforts at establishing a “China-Pacific Island” bloc, but these countries are also keen to see what others might be offering and what the bargain may be.
Another point to note is that India has steadily improved relations with many U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific as New Delhi’s relationship with Washington has improved. This is helped by the common concern about China’s rise that worries all in the region. Thus, the visit was important both in terms of the broader context as well as in terms of the bilateral ties. Overall, both the ministers expressed positive sentiments on their meetings and the opportunities to forge ahead in their relationship.