Fran O'Sullivan: China the key to economic future

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Hui Liangyu is not a household name in New Zealand.

Hui is the second-highest ranked of China's Vice-Premiers, a member of the State Council and also a Politiburo member.

The Hoover Institute recently predicted Hui would step down when the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party selects its new Politiburo next year.

But as the representative of the nation that looks set to become the Government's key banker, he is a critical player in this country's future.

Officially, Bill English wants to tap Hui's brain to understand China's views on a range of regional and global issues.

"That is important to New Zealand as we plan our future strategies in Asia," English said.

But it's not just China's stance on regional matters that English will be canvassing. Fresh back from the International Monetary Fund meeting with all its portents of woe including the potential for double-dip recession, English will be seeking some assurances that China will continue to invest a portion of its US$3 trillion reserves in New Zealand bonds.

That's already happening.

But it's now critically important for New Zealand's future that those channels are kept flowing. Particularly as the Key Government (assuming it is returned after the November 26 election) is likely to have to delay its planned partial state asset sales programme until the international economy hits an upswing.

That factor, combined with the inevitable impact of the international slowdown on the New Zealand economy (this has already dampened the Government's hopes of returning to surplus earlier that 2014-2015) will have coloured the talks which took place in Wellington yesterday and which will resume today.

Let's face it, this country is hardly likely to be the top priority for European or United States investors in the near term.

There has been talk that the Government will place at least one Treasury official in Beijing to ensure its plan to run credible finances is heard and understood at official levels.

It was not clear ahead of the Hui meeting whether China might seek open endorsement from New Zealand for its proposal for a new reserve currency instead of the US dollar. But that will inevitably come.

Behind the scenes various Chinese companies, many of them SOEs, have been scouting the potential to invest in assets ranging from mines (including Pike River), iron sands, oil and gas and infrastructure such as roads and rail assets (China is already selling rolling stock to KiwiRail) and have expressed interest in getting involved with the rebuilding of earthquake-stricken Christchurch.

The Key Government doesn't talk a great deal about the potential for China to deepen its overall investment footprint in New Zealand by taking such opportunities.

Not because it doesn't see the potential for win-win results. (Trade Minister Tim Groser is particularly eloquent on this score.)

But because the Government's spinmeisters are concerned that making a big deal of rolling out the welcome mat to some large Chinese investments may result in the Beehive getting ahead of public opinion (particularly with an electionpending).

This is a cop-out. But it's also realpolitik.

So while Cabinet ministers like Groser are somewhat constrained on this score, there are no such restrictions on former politicians.

At the NZ Technology Trade and Investment forum yesterday, former Victorian Premier John Brumby (now a director on Huawei's Australian board) emphasised China would overtake the US as the world's largest economy within 10 years. Brumby said China was simply following the path that Japan charted years ago where its focus on overseas investment naturally followed on from increased trade in goods and services with its trading partners.

Brumby predicts the scale of Chinese investment in New Zealand and Australia will become significant. He believes it should be viewed as an "opportunity - not a threat".

But right now that footprint is rather small. The US has A$550 billion ($690 billion) invested in Australia; the United KIngdom has A$472 billion and Japan A$117 billion; China has just A$19.5 billion invested there.

China has around $3 billion invested in New Zealand.

Presentations by NZ Trade and Enterprise chief executive Peter Chrisp, New Zealand Information and Communication Technologies Group chairman Bennett Midary and a raft of companies that are rapidly growing stronger business in China show that New Zealand grasps the opportunity this burgeoning nation presents.

But we have still to come to terms with the fact that investment will inevitably follow trade.

The moment that Hui's visit was publicly announced, it was obvious that the thorny issue of Chinese investment in New Zealand pastoral land would inevitably raise its head as he did the rounds of the top politicians.

The Key Government has already told the Chinese Government that the question of farm sales, in particular the sale of the Crafar farms to Shanghai's Pengxin group, is a "sensitive issue". The Government effectively passed the baton to the Overseas Investment Office when it tightened the foreign investment rules months ago. The OIO must first perform its own due diligence on Pengxin to see whether the company can indeed add value to New Zealand.

Key would obviously rather the whole issue disappeared until after the election. But the Chinese visit erodes that position.

* The Herald was a media partner for the NZ Technology, Trade and Investment Forum. The next event in the Rutherford Innovation Showcase is the Future Cities forum which will be held at the Langham hotel in Auckland today.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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