S. Jaishankar in NZ

India's External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was in New Zealand last week for a round of discussions with business and government figures, including the PM and Foreign Minister. This was the first visit for an Indian External Affairs minister for decades, and amidst a hectic schedule he found a few minutes to sit down to discuss the India-NZ relationship, and where India sees itself heading in 2022. 

Minister Jaishankar opens the new Indian High Commission in Wellington/ photo KK Productions

Minister a very warm welcome to Aotearoa New Zealand. It's exciting to have you here and thank you for being able to join us for this discussion. You're the first Indian Minister of External Affairs to visit our shores for many years, and as an experienced Foreign Minister of major power, when you think of New Zealand, what comes to mind in the foreign policy space?

Well, a lot of things really, I think some of it is history, tradition, or, you know, shared connections, some which are articulated, among other things through the Commonwealth. Some of it is really today, the Indo Pacific, the fact that we are at two sides of a very vast space, but we're very interconnected.  Also, perhaps, to me, the importance of tradition of cultures, of diversity, attributes that I think we share, and of cricket certainly, I guess a lot of it depends on the context, but mostly good, good things, bonds which really can be the basis of a very strong relationship.

I wonder if you could share with us the purpose of your visit, and what you hope to achieve whilst you're in New Zealand? And looking forward where do you see specific potential in the New Zealand-India relationship?

Well, foreign ministers’ visits have utility of their own and I think the purpose in a way could be being here, you know, meeting your counterpart, meeting other colleagues, meeting stakeholders in the relationship. And I would say, trying to see how do we take this relationship to a higher level, which I think the times today require us to do.

So some of it has therefore been an exercise in stocktaking some of it and exercising strategising. I've been saying both in my meetings and in public that the two of us need to play to our strengths, see what it is we could add which can be of interest to a utility to the other side. And I believe there are a lot of possibilities here.

Meeting other officials, including a meeting with my counterpart Minister, meeting people in the business world, as I did yesterday, and today, these are all quite helpful. And I certainly think that if we were to focus today on stronger business collaboration, seeing how we develop the digital domain to mutual advantage, looking to see whether we can build education as a stronger connect between us looking at, you know, the security, stability, prosperity of the Indo Pacific as a shared goal, there are a lot of ideas I'll be leaving with.

Are there specific kinds of industries or businesses you are thinking of when you say that?

Well, you know, having been briefly in business, I think, the best people to judge a business opportunity are business. I would say it's our job as a government to encourage them to lay out the possibilities, and if there are any impediments, regulatory or otherwise to address them.

Minister Jaishankar speaking at the India Hall of Fame event in Auckland/ photo Twitter

My sense is that on both sides there could be a heightened awareness about how we capture the changes which are taking place in both societies. Because those changes really offer new possibilities. I mentioned, for example, digital, it's today. It could be fintech. It could be cybersecurity, or if you were to look at the climate action side, we speak about climate as a public movement almost, but it has to be underpinned by a business, you know, it'll work if there are enough businesses devoted really to making it work.

Is that something that's developing in India in a meaningful way? Green business?

Yes, absolutely. You know we are today among the countries with the largest renewable programme, but there are a range of other associated activities, even in terms of policy initiatives and getting people to actually understand and sometimes re-imagine what the challenges are. We've been involved with the International Solar Alliance from the start. It was an idea which Prime Minister Modi felt very strongly about at Paris, then he pushed the Coalition for Disaster Resilient infrastructure, at Glasgow, and to COP 26. He pushed strongly for an initiative which would address the concerns of the  island states. So this was an infrastructure for resilient island states called IRIS. Now, these are in a sense broad labels which capture a set of activities, collaborations, which finally end up as projects on the ground, and also exchange of best practices.

And I think, in this, what India and New Zealand can bring to bear together would be much more than what we would do if we did it by ourselves.

Can I ask you an international relations question: from New Zealand perspective, the world looks more uncertain now than it has for a while. As a traditionally non-aligned country with long borders and complex neighbours, how do things look from an Indian perspective, and what are India's top foreign policy priorities at the moment?

Well, I'm afraid it looks just as uncertain and volatile to us as it does to you. And neither size nor location honestly provide different comfort today. And there are reasons for that.

Part of it is that over the last maybe decade, decade and a half, the fundamentals of an order which came about after the Second World War are changing.

Change in itself is not a bad thing. In fact, I would argue in this case it's a good thing, because countries that became independent after the 1940s, beginning with India, are now coming into play. There are new centres of production and consumption in the world. So there's a diversification and democratisation you can say of the world.

But when there are big changes there are risks, instability, sometimes of overreach, of miscalculation. And so it's very important that the transition, which the world is going through to create the next order if you will, takes place in as risk-free a manner as possible. And these are really long-term trends, which were evident even before COVID. But if you look at the last few years, I think COVID has driven home an awareness that there are some inbuilt shortcomings in the model of the world we've been all working with. We, I think, perhaps invested in globalisation without fully understanding that it can have a downside, that disruptions can create huge vulnerabilities and anxieties.

And we saw that during COVID, that disruption actually exposed many countries to big worries. Then we've had conflicts and we are today witnessing how a conflict in Europe can affect every corner of the world, and affect it not just in terms of inconvenience, but affect it in terms of actually the fundamentals of the day-to-day living of their citizens, you know, and many countries which were on the edge are today worried that the problems coming out of the Ukraine conflict could really push them over.

With Labour Minister Priyanca Radhakrishnan, New Zealand's first Indian-born Minister of the Crown/ photo Twitter

And, you know, we spoke about climate, I think climate events are going to be part of our life - and these are not the concerns of well-wishing NGOs, I mean, these are governance emergencies, and sometimes catastrophes, which we will have to address, and we've already seen that in different ways, in different geographies.

So, I think there is honestly a lot to worry about, and a lot to worry about that's man-made, and that has been, and is currently, the outcome of choices and policies, which to my mind can be mitigated, and de-risked through collective efforts.

And part of the reason I'm here is also to see if there's a meeting of minds in New Zealand. I don't think it's necessarily, you know, big country, small country. Where are we located? What can we do, I think everybody can make a difference. And together, perhaps more of a difference.

Thinking about those complexities of climate and conflict, COVID, and all of the other issues that India is pursuing, do you have a sense of where India has the most agency to affect change on the international stage, in terms of where you're really concentrating your effort right now?

We are roughly about  one sixth  the population of the world. Now I say that for a very sober reason. If we succeed, if we do better, that's like 16% of the world's problems being addressed. And I would argue that if we can demonstrate how to do the difficult things on scale, we're not just doing the one sixth of the world's challenges, but we're also in a sense, an example for others, when people look at us and say, Okay, if they can do it, we can do it, too.

So, I look at something like digitisation. We've had this huge record in the last two or three years, a massive record of digital delivery of social economic programs. So, it could be a safety net, a food and financial safety net, it could be building toilets, and now houses, it could be connecting water and electricity to homes, it could be about getting, kids to school, and keeping them there.

So, there is so much out there that I think we could do for ourselves, and thereby for the world. And also share and inspire others. So that's one part of it. And I think we will be central to the achievement to the success of agenda 2030.

Secondly, I come back to climate and I think if I'm a bit obsessive about it, rightly so. My sense is that whether it is the energy mix that we change to, whether it's the energy efficiencies and energy saving that we introduce into our economy, and you know, my Prime Minister keeps saying this, it's a lot of it is about lifestyle, how do we adapt to a much more energy friendly lifestyle? How do we organise our life and livelihood around a different consumption of energy?

So, again, I think we would make a big difference. And some of it is also in a sense what you call rebalancing in the world, which is countries who had contributions but who went out of the play for, in our case, because of colonialism.

In the post-colonial era, bringing our culture, our civilisation, our traditions, our heritage back into play, making it part of a sort of a global pool, if you will, I think that's something which should be of interest to people in New Zealand as well.

Many of the issues we're discussing carry significant implications for future generations, and as you note, India has phenomenal young people power. How are India's next generation shaping India's foreign policy agenda and what are their expectations?

I think one impact we will make increasingly on the world is that of talent and skills. Because the world is moving towards a greater knowledge-centred economy. If you look at almost everything we do, there's some form of intelligence embedded in it.

And at the end of the day, what was embedded comes out of some human thought, I look at the economy of the world and look at the demography of the world, you can see they are clearly not alike.  And obviously, there are reasons for this.

So, if India could improve, enhance its human resources and bring it into play as a global economic factor, I think that's a big difference we could make. And if I were to now take a bilateral slice of it, I understood from my discussions with my counterpart that New Zealand has a shortage of skills in certain areas.

Now, this is beginning to happen, governments are approaching us and saying, Ok, can we conclude a mobility agreement, where there's an orderly, protected, mutually beneficial way of ensuring the talent and skills move between us. Now, sometimes countries do that unilaterally, if you look at the Americans, the "J visas", these were meant for America to get access to this talent. But I would say, not everybody has that capacity. Sometimes it's good for all countries to arrive at an understanding.

We've done that in recent years with some of the countries of the European Union. Also in Japan, I suggested its something which might be useful, even for New Zealand, to contemplate. And obviously it's for the government here to decide where the shortages are and where we need people, but the young in India will change India, because honestly, they are a far more confident generation. So much ability to think through solutions today, to innovate, there's an energy out there, you can actually almost feel, and if we can unleash that into a world arena, I think the world will be the better for it.


S. Jaishankar with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi earlier this year.  India takes the reins at the G20 from December 1st/ photo Twitter

India will assume the presidency of the G20 from December, and the G20 as we know accounts for 85% of global, GDP 75% of international trade, and two thirds of the world population. What are India's priorities for its term as president?

We still have about close to two months to go before we take over the presidency. And we have a summit to hold in Indonesia before that. I think at the moment, the first immediate concern is for G20 to be the G20. It was meant as a forum to discuss major economic and financial issues facing the world, and in my view, it should stay focused on those sets of challenges, even though I accept that there may be many other pressing concerns, but the G20 should stay focused on the G20 mission.

What is the mission right now? I would say for environment, certainly environment in the broadest sense of the term. How do we ensure that climate action and climate justice advances, and these need to be backed up with some credible, financial resource efforts underpinning it? I think there's some discussion on that, you know, how do you ensure green lending on a major, major scale?

Secondly, today, a lot of countries of the global south have feel that their interests and their concerns and their worries have not been adequately recognized and factored in. It could be debt, it could be energy, it could be food and we need to get that on the table. Perhaps beyond that, we need to also look to see how the global financial architecture is re-engineered in a much more sustainable and equitable way.

So there's plenty for the G20 to do. We will, of course, take stock because you focus your mind and get your preparations ready. It'll be really when the baton is handed over that you articulate India’s position then with the degree of sharpness, but I think it'll be broadly in this space.

Just one final question - India brings its own perspective to the QUAD grouping, one that's really seemed to emphasize the co-operation you've been talking about over the sort of military posturing that sometimes we hear from such groupings. Is the QUAD meeting India's needs, and how would you like to see the QUAD evolve?

You know, to be fair, I think not just India, but every one of the QUAD members brings their particular perspective, so that's only fair. You would accept the QUAD has made enormous progress in the last five years, and it's done that because there is actually common ground, that is a convergence in how the four countries are approaching the QUAD.

We are looking at QUAD really as a larger platform where the four of us, by pooling our efforts in a range of domains, are able to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. Now the domains could be from education and health to humanitarian assistance, to technologies, to more connectivity, to maritime security. So we really want a broad based sort of platform, which becomes in a way a foundation for security and stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

My sense, quite honestly, is that we have, you might say, exceeded market expectations in this regard in the last few years, but obviously, we continue to want to intensify and develop the QUAD.

Thanks very much Minister. It's been an absolute pleasure to speak to you today.

Thank you. It's been a pleasure to be part of this conversation. 


- Asia Media Centre