Pragmatism should guide engagement with India

Venkat Raman

It took a visit for National Party Leader Simon Bridges to understand the mechanics of engagement with India- that it is a step-by-step process which should involve business-to-business and sector-to-sector relationship rather than the so-called ‘Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement’ and ‘All-inclusive Economic Cooperation.’

Mr Bridges was in India on his first visit last week; it is difficult for Opposition Leaders to gain the official status; even so, he managed to meet with External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar and a few senior officials of the Union Government in Delhi but his discussions with businesses and corporate bodies such as the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce will have their usefulness in the years to come.

He was accompanied by Foreign Affairs Spokesman Gerry Brownlee and Member of Parliament Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi.

From the reports and commentaries read and heard in the media in India, Mr Bridges and Mr Brownlee were able to see the ‘Real India,’ and Mr Bakshi, with his good offices at various places, was able to make the visit useful.

One of the highlights of their trip was a visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the seat of Sikhism and one of the Holiest cities in the world.

Enormous potential

“The potential opportunities for New Zealand are enormous. At the moment, we do about $3 billion in two-way trade. The obvious comparison is with China where we have a colossal $30 billion and growing,” he said, speaking to us from Wellington on his return.

But like former Prime Minister John Key, he said that a high quality Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement is where our sights should be.

“That could remove the wine tariff and other tariffs over time. And when people talk about diversification of our trading interests, this is it in spades. More diversity than anywhere on the planet,” he said, not forgetting to complain about the ‘very high price of New Zealand Wine in India,’ which was prohibitive. He said that he stayed away from Oyster Bay Sav.

Mr Bridges however agreed that there are some caveats and requirements to be considered.

“Big trade agreements like this are very difficult. Firstly, the relationship will require work, a lot of it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team who are sky-high in popularity at the moment don’t need us and don’t need to focus on us. There are so many other things for them to focus on,” he said. That is regrettably the reality.

New Zealand brands and Air Services

Mr Bridges also agreed that despite the high cost of goods made so by high tariffs, there is demand for New Zealand-made products.

“Almost everyone I have spoken to in India was crying out for our products. I am told that the so-called upper classes who could and would buy our lamb and wine are 300 million strong. That is not even including the middle classes,” he said.

“We should be encouraging direct flights. That is the next logical step of the Air Services Agreement that I signed as (Transport) Minister,” he said.

Here is another non-starter. Unfortunately, governments can only sign Memoranda of Understanding, Open Sky Policies and Civil Aviation Agreements (the two governments have signed more than one such agreements as far back as 2002 and 2005) and it is up to airline carriers to launch services. Back in 2007, this Reporter accompanied Tim Groser (then Foreign Affairs Spokesperson for National Party) to three meetings with Air New Zealand officials. What we understood then was that airlines take commercial decisions and governments- not even the Prime Minister interferes.

India was not on Air New Zealand’s radar; nor it seems to be now.

On the same score, Air India, which operates regular flights to Australia, could extend them up to Auckland and/or Wellington. But there is no indication to that effect, not yet.

When there is no corporate will, there is no way forward; in this case, skyward.

Problems and Challenges

Mr Bridges spoke about the unforgivable and avoidable delays in processing of student and visit visas, blaming no one in particular. We agree with him and take this up in our next issue.

“The Prime Minister and her Ministers should visit India often. I would if I was Prime Minister,” Mr Bridges said.

But his final message led to the caption of this story. “It (engagement with India) has to be approached in a modern way with sophistication. It is not just about selling more stuff, particularly dairy. We are not and will never flood this market. We want to do more with India, not just sell more.”

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