2 Apr 2019

Has Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's visit to China made a difference?

9:47 pm on 2 April 2019

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has wrapped up her first trip to China but has it produced any tangible gains for New Zealand businesses?

China and New Zealand flags in front of the Tian'anmen Rostrum in Beijing.

China and New Zealand flags in front of the Tian'anmen Rostrum in Beijing. Photo: AFP

The message coming from both countries is they want to see progress made on upgrade talks in their free trade deal and New Zealand's work plan on China's flagship Belt and Road initiative.

The signals coming from the Chinese administration as a result of Ms Ardern's brief but high-level visit to Beijing are while the bi-lateral relationship is strong, Spark's Huawei bid remains an issue of contention.

The GCSB has rejected Spark's initial 5G plans involving Huawei, citing security concerns.

But there remains huge potential for New Zealand in this rapidly growing and dynamic economy of 1.3 billion people.

The long term and unique relationship was recognised by President Xi Jinping, including New Zealand as the first western nation to sign a free trade (FTA) agreement with China.

"So we must go forward with this same spirit and build the comprehensive and strategic partnership and take the already very good relations to a new height - this will deliver greater benefits to the people of our two countries", he said at the start of the meeting.

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Jacinda Ardern and Xi Jinping Photo: Supplied / MFAT

Ms Ardern told reporters afterwards there was political will to progress the FTA upgrade talks, but would not give any firm details including a possible timeline.

"Because, of course, it may potentially limit our ability to negotiate the best deal possible by sitting arbitrary timelines.

"But the language that was used today was very much around hastening the work speeding up those negotiations."

She said she saw that as "a good signal to business in New Zealand" about the FTA upgrade.

But alongside that were the comments from President Xi about the need for mutual trust, reflected in an editorial of the state newspaper China Daily this morning.

While acknowledging the relationship it also said "against this rosy picture there have been less desirable undercurrents ... stemming from Wellington's seeming enthusiasm to jump on the US bandwagon to contain the overseas growth of Chinese science and technology companies.

New Zealand will have to balance its Five Eyes relationship with its economic one with China; the decision may ultimately be a political one, if it ends up in the hands of Cabinet minister Andrew Little.

Ms Ardern said she proactively raised Spark's 5G bid involving Huawei, and how the process would be handled.

"I certainly believe that New Zealand is being heard on the issues that have been raised and that there has been constructive dialogue particularly when it comes to the issue of telecommunications and the process that we have a New Zealand", she told reporters.

The last part of Ms Ardern's visit was hosting New Zealand businesses at the embassy in Beijing.

Jacinda Ardern at an official function in China.

Jacinda Ardern at an official function in China. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

Kevin Parish heads Primary Collaboration New Zealand, representing 13 companies doing business in China.

It is a dynamic market where things change quickly, he said, along with its sheer size and scale can be a challenge for New Zealand businesses.

"Because you come into this market and you probably underestimate what's required to actually be successful up here.

"And I think that's where a lot of companies need to just sort of take a think about that from their perspective and, and are they ready to come to China and if they are ... they've got to be prepared to resource up", Mr Parish said.

While there were signs of a slight slowdown, he said it was still a very lucrative market.

"[It's] still a massive economy, still going to overtake the US [in] another year or 18 months' time as far as the biggest world economy."

The nature of demand from China continued to shift and change, Mr Parish said.

"They're switching and they're transitioning quite quickly, of course away from some low cost manufacturing into high tech sort of product ... so I think that's a very positive thing for us."

Zespri China corporate affairs manager Ivan Kinsella echoed that view, saying China continued to be a growth market.

"It's growing a little slower than it used to, but the base each year is much larger.

"What we see in our area is that the demand for kiwifruit is on its own track."

Rocky Meng is a Shanghai-based lawyer advising New Zealand companies on trade rules and regulations.

New Zealand companies used to just be involved in distribution, he said, but the FTA has changed the nature of how they do business.

"They want more and more control, they will set up companies here that will hire local staff.

"They'll promote their own branding, and they will have setup their own channels themselves ... it's quite different, people are more brave."

Once the "secrets" of the upgrade talks are revealed, he said, there will be a clearer picture of the potential benefits, including the opportunity for more processed, and higher value imports into China.

"Environment is a key issue for China and obviously New Zealand respects the environment, the land, the mana."

Mr Weng said more processing in New Zealand could deliver benefits not only for that country, but also ease the pressure on on China's natural environment.

Another element of the relationship is how New Zealand will participate, or not, in the foreign policy and development plan Belt and Road.

A work plan was started by the former government but no progress has been publicly reported.

Trade Minister David Parker will attend the Belt and Road conference being held in Beijing later this month, and will bring a New Zealand business delegation with him.

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