New Zealand's strategic woes in the Pacific continue to grow, despite the wishful thinking of Wellington that it would dissipate or would not grow unabated in the near future.
While China's much-touted strategic foray into NZ's immediate "backyard" in the form of a China-led regional security framework with the ten island nations of the Pacific had been unsuccessful on this occasion, it has stated categorically that it was in the Pacific for the long haul here and to stay.
This would not go unnoticed in Washington and Canberra – the two other western nations and Wellington's close allies with a deep interest in the Pacific region, and they will continue to shore up their efforts, including strategically investing in "new relationships" that could potentially preserve their respective interests in the region.
Experts concur that these two capitals - as a part of response and preparedness for the eventuality of growing strategic assertion by an increasingly belligerent China in the Pacific region - have been dramatically reinventing their relationship with India – a country that has the capabilities and has shown the intent to play a bigger and fairer role in the region.
The US and Australia are engaging with India vigorously on both bilateral and multilateral platforms (QUAD and Indo-Pacific Economic framework) to shore up the relationship, which includes the dramatic progress by the latter in signing a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with India that will remove barriers to more than 85 percent of goods and services in each other's market.
Indeed, the way other capitals have been running their relationship with India – a fast-growing major economy and a rising power of the world – has been with an intention to advance their respective mutual national interests, including clinching free trade agreements.
However, sadly, NZ has so far neither shown an urgency nor the desire to reinvent its relationship with India – a rising and major player in the Indo-Pacific – that could advance and bolster New Zealand's strategic and wider national interests especially in current uncertain times.
There is something enigmatic about NZ's world view of India – both as a potential trading partner and a close political-strategic ally, which has never allowed the relationship to blossom up to its full potential despite remaining cordial for more than seventy years.
Some concerted efforts were made under the previous National government when two successive Prime Ministerial visits were undertaken, primarily in pursuit of an elusive Free Trade Agreement.
However, that desire and intent had largely eroded or at least dissipated at both levels – political and foreign policy bureaucracy - since a change of government in Wellington.
We are erroneously made to believe that this erosion of interest in pursuing a strong relationship with India is largely driven by the latter's own reticence in signing a FTA with NZ either bilaterally or in multilateral forums.
India's walking away from the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2019 seems to disproportionately dominate the mind space of New Zealand's foreign policy mandarins.
A less emphasis is placed upon a simultaneous key development that India, after walking away from RCEP, has managed to negotiate a Comprehensive Economic Partnership with every country member of RCEP - barring China and NZ.
The latest is India's economic comprehensive and trade agreement pact with Australia, which will eliminate tariffs on more than 85 per cent of Australian exports to India and more than 90 per cent of Indian exports to Australia.
NZ's policymakers need to sit back and take a wider and more flexible view on the relationship with India, even if it sees it more as a potential trading partner and less as a potential strategic partner in the region.
There is no merit in closing a door that could easily get access to 85-90 per cent of NZ products in the vast Indian market with a possibility of enhancing it to full access in the near future.
However, the signals emanating from Wellington as late as a couple of weeks ago - when the Pacific region was reeling under the tremors of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands and the news of an upcoming and then possible regional security framework encompassing all ten Pacific Island nations – indicates that there was no urgency to re-look relationship with India.
NZ Foreign Minister Naniaia Mahuta, while speaking in an interview with India's national news TV channel, categorically said, "[signing FTA with India] although an important ambition was not the sole ambition."
The Minister was responding to a pointed question that while India was on a spree of signing FTA (latest with the United Arab Emirates signed in 88 days only and including the pact with Australia and vigorous ongoing talks with the UK and the European Union) then why talks NZ has not progressed.
The Minister went on to explain further, "…in this day and age we need to think about the stability in our region, what the nature of those security relations looks like…our people, because fundamentally our economy is all about our people."
The fact that this was happening about the same time when China was making an unambiguous and aggressive diplomatic foray in the Pacific region only reveals that New Zealand - or the current government at least - is least willing to adopt an innovative and flexible view toward a relationship with India.
Only time will tell if such a view and approach will be better suited for NZ's own national interest.
For now, it seems, Wellington remains captive to its old and outdated worldview and moving very slowly in managing this key relationship, which has the potential to share the burden of growing strategic uncertainty in its immediate Pacific neighbourhood.