Interview with Sidhant Sibal, WION TV

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: G20 Trade Ministers’ Meeting; India’s G20 Presidency; strengthening the rules-based trading system; Australia-India trade agreements; India’s industrial policy; China-Australia trade.

Sidhant Sibal, Host: India and Australia share a strong relationship. With me is the Australian Assistant Trade Minister who is here in India for the G20 Trade Ministers' Meeting. Let's talk to him about this relationship and about the G20 meeting.

Sir, welcome to WION. My first question to you is how was the G20 Trade Ministers' Meeting in Jaipur which took place? And also, there are concerns over weaponisation of trade. If we can talk about that.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Trade Minister: Well, I'm very pleased to be here and to be here on your program. It's a very big question. The agenda in front of the G20 Trade Ministers is a complex and important task, and I was very grateful for Minister Piyush Goyal's efforts in, first of all, India's excellent hosting of this G20, but also in encouraging the Trade Ministerial to focus on the issues that matter as we approach the WTO Trade Ministerial in Abu Dhabi early next year.

That's going to be a vital Trade Ministerial for the world. As we make sure we rebuild confidence in the World Trade Organization and rules-based trade as we resolve some of the key trade issues that go towards the economic challenges that the globe is facing, the climate and energy challenges that the world is facing, and also the key food security challenges that the world is facing. Trade is an important part of the answer here and India's leadership in focusing the Ministerial and the discussions on the issues that matter was very welcome indeed.

Sidhant Sibal: There was no joint statement, there was an outcome statement. Do you see this as concerning or do you see it's part and parcel of G20 now, especially after the Ukraine conflict broke last year? And since then, we have seen almost negligible statements, joint statements, except, of course the Bali joint statement.

Assistant Minister: A joint statement in a Trade Ministers' context with 20 Trade Ministers in a room is a very good outcome and we should not understate the challenges that the world faces. Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine is not just a humanitarian catastrophe. It's been an economic crisis for the world. It's been bad for energy prices, which has made all of our businesses less competitive and put real pressure on households. It's been bad in food security terms.

And the unilateral cancelling by Russia of the Black Sea Grain Initiative has created an additional crisis for the world's poor and the global south who need food security to get through the coming years. So, it was important that the Trade Ministerial focused on those issues of real crisis and real challenge, as well as looking to the issues that will strengthen the WTO for the future and provide durable structural reform that's going to be in the interests of all of our economies.

Sidhant Sibal: Sir, India has been calling for reforms of trading bodies like WTO as well. What's your take on that?

Assistant Minister: Well, we share India's view that reform is required at the WTO. There's been excellent leadership by the WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and there is a shared task in front of the G20 Ministers to lead that reform effort and to build consensus around making sure that the dispute settlement mechanism has the confidence of all of the countries and economies engaged in the WTO.

Sidhant Sibal: Supply chains should be reformed as well. There has been a strong emphasis from the Indian side, from the Australian side, the Japanese side. What's your view as to how these countries and, of course, like-minded partners can work together to form new supply chains?

Assistant Minister: Well, you're right. The collective discussion between the G20 was a good focus on supply chain reliability and supply chain diversity. What I'm most interested in here in terms of the discussions that Australia has led, has been the direct discussions with India over the ECTA Agreement and the forthcoming Comprehensive Economic Agreement between Australia and India.

There are enormous opportunities there for Indian firms, for Indian workers and the Indian economy and for Australian firms to diversify our supply chains, strengthen our resilience, cooperate in the areas of the economy that are going to matter for the development of both of our countries and also deliver significant spill-over benefits for the region that India and Australia share. I was delighted with the approach taken by my Indian counterparts, particularly Minister Goyal, on those questions, and I'm looking forward to more progress and an early finalisation of that important economic instrument for Australia and India.

Sidhant Sibal: I was coming to that point. So, early finalisation, any timeline for this early finalisation are we looking at?

Assistant Minister: Well, we're all about ambition and not about artificial deadlines here. I'm very pleased with the progress that's been made. This first phase agreement, the ECTA Agreement, was ratified in record time by the Australian Parliament and on the Indian side. It is already delivering tangible benefits for Australian businesses, who've reported to me that they are already using the business and investment and trade facilitation provisions of that agreement to improve their market access and their engagement with Indian firms.

And we are already, just months after its ratification, five significant meetings deep into negotiations over the more Comprehensive Economic Agreement. That is fast progress by anybody's estimation. And I think it represents the determination of Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Albanese to conclude this agreement and to use it as part of the ever-growing friendship between Australia and India, delivering tangible benefits for our businesses, but also for our economic development collectively.

Sidhant Sibal: Sir, India has a policy called 'Make in India'. What's your view on that policy?

Assistant Minister: Well, it's an opportunity for Australian business. You can see in the few days that I've been here, the excitement and vitality in the Indian economy. The moon landing on the day that I arrived here in Bengaluru was just so exciting and you could see the sense of national pride and civic pride in that technological achievement.

You can see the determination of the Modi Government to build in Indian manufacturing and the next phase of low carbon, high job, high emission, high opportunity economic development. And there's an opportunity for Australia to participate in that, to participate in investment terms, to participate with our exports in commodity terms but also going up the value chain and making sure that we're participating in that economic boom. It's going to be good for India's national economic development. But India's development is a good thing for the world.

Sidhant Sibal: Sir, trade has been a major pillar of the India-Australia relationship, especially after the signing of the ECTA. So, where do you see, if you can crystal gaze the trading relationship, the investment relationship between the two countries perhaps five years from now?

Assistant Minister: Well, you can see the direction that the two governments are focused on together. We want to see progress in critical minerals and critical mineral supply chains in production opportunities in Australia and providing high value critical minerals products to the Indian economy and Indian manufacturing. You can see the opportunities that the governments are pursuing in the digital economy, in higher education, in agribusiness and agritech, the areas where the two governments have nominated collective effort. Commercial opportunities will flow from that. And of course, the broader business relationship is just so healthy. I'm leading here a delegation of 80 Australian CEOs and business leaders and they are absolutely energised with the opportunities for new business and creating new opportunities and development in the Indian economy and in Australia. It's a very exciting time to be here in New Delhi with the business, the Australian business community and the G20 that India is so ably leading.

Sidhant Sibal: So, weaponisation of trade by China is a concerning matter, especially for Australia. What's your take on that?

Assistant Minister: Well, we are working through in a systematic way dealing with the impediments that have been put in front of Australian trade to China. I'm pleased with the progress that we have made thus far as we work through those issues in a calm and deliberate way with the Chinese government. There is still some progress to make before we can say that trade between China and Australia has returned to normal and we are focused on those issues.

It's very important for the rules-based order and for international trade more broadly that unilateral impediments not be imposed on trade and that trade be allowed to flow freely between countries on the basis of the rules that have been agreed to by all of us. That's in the interests of Australian exporters. It's also in the interests of Chinese consumers and Chinese business. And of course, there is a global interest here. So, we will continue to work through those issues in a steady way. Right now, in India, of course I'm focused on the opportunities to diversify Australian trade in terms of our market opportunities but also in terms of the Australian products that we offer to the world. And I'm very keen to get on with that task.

Sidhant Sibal: So, my last question to you is, there are concerns over Khalistani violence in Australia. I'm asking you this question as a Minister, not as a Trade Minister. So, what do you have to say on that? There has been vandalization of the temples as well. We have seen comments by your government as well. If you can talk about that.

Assistant Minister: Well, firstly, there is no room for vandalism or for that kind of activity in Australia and we condemn that unreservedly. There is, of course, freedom of expression in both of our countries, we are great democracies. India is the largest democracy in the world and there is freedom of expression in both of our countries. But it's very important that that freedom of expression be exercised in a way that is consistent with the law and the Australian government will continue to monitor that closely.

Sidhant Sibal: Well, thank you so much, sir, for speaking to WION here in Delhi and perhaps there will be more engagements and of course, the upcoming visit of the Australian Prime Minister to Delhi for the G20 summit. Thank you so much, sir.

Assistant Minister: Thanks very much.

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