In international politics, experts argue, nation-states are primarily driven by national interests, often keeping aside any ‘perceived’ or ‘real’ differences, ideological or otherwise. Or even turning their back on long-held societal beliefs, views, and ideological positions, on both friends and foes alike, in pursuit of core national interests.

New Zealand’s dramatic success in becoming the first developed country of the global-west signing of the historic Free Trade Agreement with China way back in 2008 would easily come as a glaring example of the former, while Australia’s recent turnaround and cancellation of $90 billion contract for buying submarines from France and giving the contract to the United States, to purchase nuclear-powered submarine, will be classic examples of the how nation-states pursue their respective national interests.

So, can New Zealand’s policymakers put a hand on their heart and say they are pursuing the country’s national interests diligently in nurturing relationships with India at different levels?

The recent non-mention of India as an important immediate trade and strategic priority in a speech delivered by Minister of Trade Damien O’Connor at Auckland Trade and Economic Policy School (ATEPS) organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) is just another example that this relationship is not getting the nurturing and attention it richly deserves.

Even earlier, India was allowed to languish in New Zealand’s “Very High-Risk category” that restricted inward travel to prevent any possible leak of Covid in the community far more than needed. At one point, the daily number of Covid infections rising in New Zealand was more than the numbers coming daily in New Delhi – one of the ports from where considerable inward travel emanates from India, leading questions on the merit of India’s categorisation as a very high-risk category.

Indeed, subsequently, when threats of new Covid variant Omicron became apparent, India went ahead and put NZ on a high-risk country list, albeit only requiring a seven-day quarantine on arrival and a self-paid RT-PCR test.

This is when a quarter of a million strong and vibrant Indian diaspora lives in New Zealand, with strong linkages with India requiring the need for unhindered travel, despite a global pandemic.

Talking about connectivity – the collective need and urge for a direct flight between the two countries has never been as high as in the middle of a global pandemic where direct flights between two destinations are considered as least risky, preventing any potential spread of Covid infection.

A quick review of many pressing issues affecting the Kiwi-Indian community and the overall bilateral relationship between the two countries, such as delays and rejections of partnership visas, decline in service exports amidst Covid disruption, education export, among others, reveals that not enough political capital is being invested by New Zealand in nurturing, much less strengthening, the relationship with India.

This comes against the backdrop of the latest news that India ranks as the fourth most powerful country in Asia, with the significant economic, military, and cultural capabilities, that if harnessed efficiently, will create win-win outcomes for New Zealand.

India’s economy has grown at a record pace in the second quarter of this year despite grappling with a devastating second wave of Covid-19, and the country is slowly clawing back from the losses of 2020 and actively hunting for new FTAs in 2021 with countries like the UK, EU, Australia, and Canada.

Sadly, New Zealand is missing from the scene.

Especially when our trans-Tasman neighbour Australia has re-invented its approach in negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with India and is now on the cusp of cracking a deal early next year.

This cannot happen unless some systemic apathy towards India has crept within New Zealand’s foreign  trade policy thinking.

However, remaining oblivious to a rising India is not in the best interests of New Zealand, especially when New Zealand must plan a long-term economic recovery after the current Covid-mayhem and huge debt.