With India’s ‘Look East’ policy evolving into ‘Act East’, President Pranab Mukherjee has pitched for closer ties with New Zealand and said the region has gained even “greater salience” in New Delhi’s strategic thinking and economic engagement.
The President, on his maiden three-day state visit to New Zealand , spoke about the importance being attached by India to the Pacific region which he termed as a “natural extension of our immediate neighbourhood of South East Asia”.
“With our ‘Look East’ policy evolving into an ‘Act East’ policy, the region has gained even greater salience in our strategic thinking and economic engagement. Most of India’s foreign trade flows through the sea lanes of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. These lanes also bring us the bulk of our energy, be it oil, gas or coal,” he said in an interview to a local daily ‘The New Zealand Herald’.
Mukherjee, who becomes the first President to travel to New Zealand, arrived in Auckland this morning and was received by officials. He was later accorded a ceremonial reception at the Governor General’s House which included a traditional rubbing of nose gently with New Zealand Governor General Sir Jerry Mateparae.
“I believe, this region holds tremendous potential for enhanced trade and investment as well as people to people contacts,” he said in the interview with the newspaper, which, however, focused on Free Trade Agreement and quoted New Zealand Prime Minister John Key as saying that their country wants advancement on FTA.
Other media reports quoted the Kiwi Prime Minister as saying that the visit of the Indian President will be a good opportunity to continue to talk trade and “discuss where we’re going”.
“India has demographics very similar to China,” he said, “India has demographics very similar to China,” he said, but added that “we do a lot less business with India than we do with China, and a lot less business with India relative to the size of the economy in India, so we’re keen to really push that closer economic cooperation at some point.”
In 2011, the New Zealand Prime Minister launched the NZ Inc India Strategy, a plan for India to become a core trade, economic and political partner for New Zealand.
The newspaper quoted Trade officials of New Zealand as saying that exports to India have fallen since 2011 from 900 million US dollar to 637 million dollars in 2015. Both countries had 10 rounds of negotiations on FTA.
On his visit to New Zealand, the first by an Indian leader since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to this country in 1986, the President listed many commonalities between the two countries.
“And, of course, we should never forget that cricket - followed so avidly in our two countries - is a strong binding force at a people-to-people level,” he said.
He said India’s large and expanding middle class, critical infrastructure and natural resource requirements, expanding economic and commercial presence in South-East Asia and close ties with Asia Pacific countries provide tremendous scope for intensifying bilateral economic and commercial ties.
“New Zealand has strong expertise in areas such as agriculture, food processing, high-end manufacturing, disaster management etc, which is of interest to India. Its tourism and education sectors also have significant strengths which could benefit India,” he said.
Asked what significant change was witnessed in India during his Presidency, Mukherjee said an important change was seen when the electorate of the country “freed” governance from the “compulsion of coalition politics”.
“One of the big achievements of the last two years has also been to tackle the problem of corruption. To this end, the government has transparently and through an open process, auctioned major public assets such as coal and spectrum,” he said.
“India is today the fastest growing economy amongst the “India is today the fastest growing economy amongst the large economies of the world. This achievement is particularly remarkable as this has been achieved in the face of global headwinds and a second consecutive year of below normal rainfall,” he said.
He said the reform initiatives of the Government along with its commitment to calibrated fiscal management and consolidation bode well for growth prospects and the overall macroeconomic situation.
“To reap the fullest benefit of our growth potential, we have to overcome infrastructure bottlenecks, improve the quality of labour force by educating as well as skilling them appropriately and ensure better health standards. The Government is working on this and has launched a number of initiatives such as Make in India, improving the Ease of Doing Business,” he said.
He said India has displaced China as the world’s largest destination for attracting foreign direct investment.
“We have undertaken a major program of opening up our economy to FDI and the entire economy is now open to foreign business. Given the growth potential, a booming consumer market and skilled workforce, India is one of the most preferred FDI destinations in the world.We have now displaced China as the world’s largest destination for FDI,” he said.
The President listed elimination of poverty remains among the challenges being faced by India.
“We are not satisfied with mere poverty alleviation. We have committed ourselves to the goal of poverty elimination. We firmly believe that the first claim on development belongs to the poor and, therefore, we are focusing our attention on those who need the basic necessities of life most urgently.”
He said employment generation is critical to achieve lasting reduction in poverty.
“Climate change is a serious challenge for India. Our agriculture, water resources, and disease environment will be affected by climate change. That is why, for us cooperation on climate change is so important. We played a leading role in the COP-21 negotiations at Paris. We have ambitious plans to build capacity in renewable resources such as solar.
“Between now and 2030, we intend to re-write history by not only growing rapidly but also reducing the emission intensity of our GDP by 33 to 35% compared to 2005.
He said New Zealand has become a favourite destination for Indian movie makers.
“Connectivity remains an issue but this will be addressed to an extent with the planned signing of a bilateral air services agreement between our two countries during my visit. I foresee that we are on the threshold of a far closer people to people relationship between our two peoples than we have ever seen.” he said.