India and New Zealand: Strengthening Ties: Balaji Chandramohan Provides an Indian Perspective on Indo-New Zealand Relations in the 21st Century

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New Zealand Prime Minister John Key's three-day state visit to India in June 2011 sealed long-lasting relations between two geographically separated countries that are finding their interests converging in the 21st century. The state visit accorded to New Zealand's prime minister underscores the importance of the relationship. The two countries have shared values in democracy and a vital interest in the continuance of an overall stable political and economic architecture of the Asia--Pacific region in the 21st century.

John Key's visit to India was more political than business--he spent two days in New Delhi, the capital, and only a day in Mumbai, which is the commercial capital. This shows clear understanding that if New Delhi and Wellington can sort out their political priorities the rest of the problems involved in negotiating the Indo-New Zealand free trade agreement can be easily solved.

The joint statement released after the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Key revealed that New Zealand will appoint a defence adviser to India the better to facilitate defence linkages. (1) Although the details were not spelt out, it is understandable that the two countries look forward to building closer strategic and defence ties.

This is definitely a paradigm shift, considering that just a decade ago India, as a nuclear weapons state, was not well perceived in Wellington. It took a lot of manoeuvring by New Delhi through Washington to get Wellington's support for the Indo-United States nuclear deal, which had to pass through the 46-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. New Zealand is an influential member of that group.

However, close followers of Indo-New Zealand relations are not surprised by the paradigm shift in relations in the past couple of years. The appointment of former naval chief of staff Admiral Suresh Mehta as India's high commissioner to New Zealand was a step forward in sealing a strategic relationship between New Delhi and Wellington. Also, India had been promoting naval diplomacy of late in South-east Asia, extending into the South Pacific, as a part of its 'Look East' policy. With an improving economy, India wants to extend this policy to New Zealand.

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The shift in Indo-New Zealand relations has occurred because at present the left-centre government in India and the right-centre government in New Zealand have both shed ideological trappings and are conducting their bilateral relations on the basis not only of shared values of democracy but also of realpolitik and sound understanding of the present geo-political changes. Earlier, India's ideological stance, which included non-alignment and ambiguity over nuclear disarmament, did not go down well in the Beehive, whether Labour or National controlled. (2)

On the other hand, India and New Zealand have both understood the importance, as a part of their foreign policy endeavours, to connect with their shared Commonwealth history. India's emergence as a great power in the Asia--Pacific region suggests that it could assume a leadership role among the English-speaking Commonwealth democracies. (3)

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On that note, it is a welcome sign that India understands the importance of New Zealand and its clout in the Pacific community. For its part, New Zealand recognises India's importance as a major power in the Asia Pacific region, especially in the 21st century, which in many ways happens to be an Asian century. Strategic experts in both India and New Zealand have noted the geo-political shift that has occurred in the first decade of the 21st century with the emergence of China as a major power.

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India has explicitly stated that it has no intention of forming an alliance with democratic nations directed against China. Neither can New Zealand afford to take such an approach, considering that it signed a free trade agreement with China in April 2008. …