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Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s maiden visit to India must be seen as an exercise in recalibrating New Zealand-India relations in the aftermath of Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to NZ in October.

That visit hit a sour note when Jaishankar, in a joint press conference with Mahuta in Auckland, urged a “fairer and more sympathetic treatment” for stranded Indian students unable to renew their visas to return to NZ to finish their studies.

This vexed issue, which belied the hopes built into the education agreement inked between the two countries back in 2010, found no reference in Mahuta’s statement issued on the eve of her departure for New Delhi as part of “reconnecting Aotearoa New Zealand to the world.”

Mahuta’s itinerary included meetings with Jaishankar, Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar and Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda, as well as travelling to Mumbai to “promote New Zealand’s education, trade and tourism interests in India’s commercial and industrial capital.”

Whether or not the plight of the stranded Indian students came up in the bilateral exchange between the two ministers, who met on February 7, is not clear in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement issued after the meeting.

Renewable  energy and Indo-Pacific Security emerged as the key areas of engagement, with Mahuta handing over signed copies of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) Framework Agreement to Jaishankar, signalling New Zealand’s endorsement and participation in the initiative.

In turn, Mahuta welcomed India’s participation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a regional strategy launched by the US which involved the four Quad countries (India, the US, Japan and Australia), as well as New Zealand and South Korea.

The inclusion of this on the agenda of Mahuta’s visit to India signalled Wellington’s endorsement of India’s growing international stature.

Foreign Minister Mahuta’s  visit followed on the heels of Food Safety Minister Meka Whaitiri’s visit to New Delhi in September to address the World Dairy Summit, which was preceded by Joint Trade Committee talks held between the two countries in the Indian capital in June.

Those talks were preceded by Foreign Ministry Consultations, where officials reiterated New Zealand and India’s commitment to “deepening bilateral ties and engagement across a range of areas including trade and investment, defence and security and people-to-people ties.”

A similar diplomatic ritual had played out a little over a year earlier when the two countries held Foreign Office Consultations virtually.

Throughout, the focus areas from the NZ standpoint have remained to “reduce market access barriers, and strengthen economic cooperation in agriculture, renewable energy and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.”

 The timing of Mahuta’s visit, coming in the wake of the Free Trade Agreement between New Zealand and the European Union as well as the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) signed between India and Australia, would appear to indicate the impetus has come from new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.

Former PM Jacinda Ardern had prioritised working out FTAs with the UK and the EU.

But India is yet to commit to reducing market access barriers for NZ businesses as a prelude to signing an FTA with New Zealand in the future.

NZ businesses have eyed India’s vast market for consumer products and services, particularly the investment opportunity presented by a burgeoning middle class.

 NZ exporters have been keen to gain a foothold in the Indian market but are daunted by the high tariffs.

Agriculture has remained a key sticking point of bilateral negotiations for NZ.

But with the reset in immigration rules in the post-Covid scenario, the goal to attract and keep skilled migrants from India has remained an area of contention between the two countries.

Mahuta’s visit to India will not bring the two countries any closer to signing a Free Trade Agreement. It is merely a handshake across the net, a gesture of diplomatic sportsmanship aimed at keeping the goodwill flowing.

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