The exhilaration generated last week over foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta's speech at India New Zealand Business Council summit 2021 merits the question if the convergence of interests in "Indo-Pacific" be the new driver of the NZ-India relationship.
Minister Nanaia Mahuta had delivered one of the very few speeches from NZ's top political leadership in recent times exhibiting undiluted attention towards the emerging Indo-Pacific region and the centrality of India & Indo in the "Indo-Pacific."
This speech will be soon followed by another major speech on New Zealand's perspective on Indo-Pacific by none other than Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, within a span of a couple of weeks.
This is a remarkable departure from the recent past, when as late as in 2018, the then Minister of Defence Ron Mark, speaking at Shangrila Dialogue, was notably adamant about using the term "Asia-Pacific" as opposed to his peers from the region when the idea of "Indo-Pacific" was being trumpeted in 'Asia's premier security conference.
For uninitiated, the concept of Asia-Pacific visualised Asia and Pacific as a strategic continuum whereby enmeshing economies of the West Pacific with those of East Asia and, to some extent Southeast Asia.
As opposed to this, the concept of Indo-Pacific is based on the premise that the Indian and the Pacific oceans form a single strategic space and underscores the growing importance of India as a strategic player in 'Asia's regional security architecture.
For a quite long time, New Zealand's foreign policy mandarins have faced the dilemma of choosing one over the another and trying to remain a distant observer than an enthusiastic participant of the politics in the Indo-Pacific.
Against this backdrop, Foreign Minister's latest speech at INZBC Summit 2021 was a remarkable departure, where she asserted, "The Indo-Pacific connects our whanau of the Pacific, or close friends and relatives, further afield in East Asia and the Pacific Rim. And most importantly, the Indo-Pacific recognises the influence of the Indian sub-continent on the wider region."
This is likely to be closely followed by the Prime Minister's speech at the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, where it is likely that New Zealand's perspective on the Indo-Pacific, will be further unveiled in a closer settings (than INZBC summit).
Clearly, New Zealand seems to be more ready than ever before to embrace the Indo-Pacific region as an extension of its core interest areas.
It is this changing perspective and acceptance of India's important role in the Indo-Pacific that many would hope that New Zealand and India can find a convergence of interests in a manner that it could act as the new "driver" of the bilateral relationship between New Zealand and India.
How "Indo-Pacific" could act as new "driver" of NZ-India bilateral relations
In the last decade, many experts have hoped to see a transformative change in the relationship between the two countries, driven either by the ongoing talks on a "prospective Free Trade Agreement" and the increasing size and the role of "vibrant Indian diaspora in NZ".
During this period, on the one hand, there had been two Prime Ministerial visits from New Zealand in search of now elusive Free Trade Agreement with India, and on the other hand, the number of international students and new migrants arriving from India had increased manifold, raising expectations among many quarters that the relationship was set for a transformative change.
Many had hoped that these seemingly newfound common interests could convert the perennial "warm-vibes" between the two countries into a more meaningful and substantive bilateral relationship with tangible outcomes for both parties.
For uninitiated, mutually shared traditions of democracy, commonwealth, English language and the love for the game of cricket have been the foundational pillars of a warm relationship between the two countries. Added to this, the demeanour of Blackcaps on cricket grounds have always ensured tremendous goodwill and warm vibes for New Zealand amongst India's vast cricket frenzy masses.
It was expected that emerging common interests in India's economic growth story and the growing size of the Indian diaspora in New Zealand would act as a new "driver," around which pre-existing warmth and the diplomatic relationship could be further deepened.
Often, in any thriving bilateral relationship, there are some areas of interest – which could be in trade, defence, strategic, people to people relations, or ideological proximity that binds the two sides together and motivates them to work through other areas of divergent interests.
In the absence of such a core driver, the bilateral relations between two countries often face the risk of losing momentum where, if there are no major risks or impediments to the relationship, then also, on the other hand, no great strides are made, and the relationship drift into inertia.
The current state of the NZ-India relationship, many would agree, are in that state of inertia, where if there are no major irritants holding back the relationship, then equally, there are no major strides despite many obvious commonalities of interests and a longstanding tradition of warmth.
The total bilateral trade remains at a paltry $2.7 billion, which despite incremental progress in recent years, remains far low than both countries' other key trade partnerships.
And this is when India and New Zealand have considerable potential to build modern, mutually beneficial commercial relationships.
Strong diaspora connections often drive nations close to each other as seen as in other parts of the world. However, the same cannot be said convincingly about NZ and India - as both nations remain out of each other's main diplomatic and political radar.
While asymmetry in the size of the market, and therefore interests that the "trade" or "diaspora" offers to both side's polity, might be one big factor in keeping both nations out of each other's radar.
From India's perspective, New Zealand may be too small a market to make any concessions for free trade that New Zealand seeks, and the size of the diaspora is also too small (in comparison to other parts of the world) to elicit any interest from India's political elites, largely eyeing towards their own competitive domestic politics.
From New Zealand's perspective, pursuing trade relations, primarily from the point of investment – that India so desperately seeks – might be too much of an ask.
It is in this regard that New Zealand's newfound interest and shedding of reticence in embracing "Indo-Pacific" and accepting India's growing role in the emergent Indo-Pacific could potentially bring more convergence of interests between the two countries.
Probably, India has more to offer as a net contributor in the shaping of the Indo-Pacific region to elicit interest from New Zealand's political leadership. Likewise, New Zealand could potentially have more to offer as an active and consensual player in the Indo-Pacific to evoke respectful interest from India's otherwise hugely distracted political leadership.