To India with love

In the four years since New Zealand signed a free-trade agreement with China, dairy exports to that country have increased fourfold - from $500 million to $2 billion.

Despite reservations, including over recent revelations tariffs are still imposed by China on imported New Zealand dairy products, that is an extraordinary gain.

Trade Minister Tim Groser and Prime Minister John Key, in India this week to set on a fast track negotiations on a similar agreement with that country, will hope for equivalent dividends in India. Of the emerging nations, India has been described by Mr Groser as the second emerging superpower, its fast-growing middle class representing potentially huge markets for New Zealand exporters.

To this end, Mr Key was accompanied by a delegation of about 65 people, including at least 28 agriculture and business leaders, with the intention of forging firm links - while officials establish the tortuous path towards that coveted FTA. Favouring New Zealand in this endeavour is that India has a huge and burgeoning population.

In a world in which resources are expected increasingly to be stretched, food security will become an acute issue. Mr Key, Mr Groser and their Trade and Enterprise ministry representatives will have been anxious to impress upon the Indian Government the part New Zealand might play as a nutrient reservoir for that country and the benefits to be gained in cementing links sooner rather than later. For its part, fast modernising India will have wanted to press on its visitors the virtues and economies of its prolific and flexible IT and service industries.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its predilection for the bright lights, another Indian sector has captured the headlines: "Bollywood". The signing of a film co-production agreement between the two countries is expected to be a boost to film industries of both, encourage further co-operation, enhance co-investment and promote joint creative input. A number of successful Bollywood hits - with their audiences of millions - have already been partly filmed in this country with potentially significant tourism spin-offs.

But behind the scenes work was done in other fields, too. There is, for example, a new Education Co-operation Initiative which will promote partnerships in higher education and research, and skills and vocational education - through student exchanges, joint research activities and industry collaborations.

There has been focus on strengthening bilateral defence co-operation as well, and it cannot have harmed this country's reputation in such matters to have its elite SAS forces heavily involved in the Kabul Intercontinental siege to the north of the subcontinent. The message will have been reinforced that while not the biggest fish in the pond, what New Zealand does, it does with utmost professionalism.

As for the major prize, the FTA, communiques from the trip have been coy. The two prime ministers "reiterated the commitment to early conclusion of the free-trade agreement negotiations, noting that the ongoing negotiations were proceeding well" - which is a diplomatic way of saying "we are still talking".

Such matters are complex and involve a degree of risk, fiscal and political, for the participants. New Zealand at least has the advantage of having in Mr Groser a trade minister who has made such negotiations a life's work. Which is not to say there are no downsides to free-trade free-for-alls: how does this country, in all conscience, square up to a trade partner of a country in which labour legislation, for instance, is poles apart from our own, and in which "sweat shop" conditions are not uncommon?

What are the immigration implications for some of our skilled-worker categories when India is overflowing with them?

Are there cultural, infrastructural and bureaucratic barriers to Indian markets regardless of the current political imprimatur?

Possibly there are, but New Zealand has always been a trading nation and, particularly during the past 50 years, has had to seek out new markets and inventive ways of meeting the criteria presented by those markets - either in product design, quality issues or sheer persistence. India is no different.

It will have its own idiosyncratic requirements, but gaining a firm foothold in its markets - and importantly in its imagination - can ultimately only be to this country's benefit.


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