Maori Trustee Jamie Tuuta is at the forefront as Maori businesses position them themselves to take hold of future opportunities with China.
"Maori are large asset holders in the primary sector - fishing, farming and forestry. We need to understand how we might leverage that through building relationships with China and Asia more broadly."
A two-pronged approach to Chinese engagement allows Maori asset holders to fulfil what Tuuta cites as, "a desire to move beyond the farm gate to participate in value chains".
Tuuta acknowledges most Maori are unwilling to sell their land and rights over natural resources.
"From a business perspective, this means that Maori asset holders need to perform better than any other business. It's all about free cash flow, because capital gain becomes irrelevant.
"If I was to focus on where the key opportunity is, it is one of access to capital for Maori. That has been a focus and emphasis for me, to really understand how we might access Chinese capital and work with Chinese investors understanding the constraints and parameters under which they operate and what they can invest in."
He points out New Zealand companies are paying interest rates of 5 per cent or more, Chinese companies 2-2.5 per cent. This opens up the possibility of Chinese investors being able to use their cheaper access to capital to free up Maori assets and generate a more productive use of resources.
"When you look at the Maori economy and Maori asset base, it is asset-rich and cash-poor. It is really a matter of understanding who the partners might be, and, for particular target markets like China, unlocking some of the value in these assets."
Tuuta's focus has been on developing a platform to further relations with Shanghai Pengxin, the Chinese company that acquired the 16 Crafar dairy farms last year. In January, he visited China for Shanghai Pengxin's AGM, to deepen relationships. But the contacts were initially formed by Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples during the Maori Inc mission last year. "What was being portrayed in the media for me didn't quite sit right. So we wanted to take steps to balance that view."
He has sought to understand the objectives of Shanghai Pengxin in New Zealand, as well as what this would likely mean for Maori trusts and for the broader perception of Maori toward foreign investment. "For Maori to truly succeed economically, we need to engage with foreign investors."
The Shanghai Pengxin talks are centred on further farming acquisitions or partnerships, as well as participation further down the value chain. While the spotlight was on dairy farm acquisitions because of the Crafar purchase, broad discussions are taking place about other opportunities, including forestry conversions in the central North Island.
Tuuata cites the China Investment Corporation which is in discussions with some iwi over proposals to replanting forests and soft wood processing. "It's complex not only because of the ownership structure but more so because of some of the planning and environmental aspects. "
It is clear Maori-owned land will feature as a crucial asset when it comes to future opportunities for dairy conversions or forestry plays. But iwi will require a capital partner or strategic partners who can bring more than just capital. The real challenge lies in value-added products, where partners can bring a market element alongside capital injections. "From a Maori perspective," says Tuuta, "It is important to embrace China and all it brings, but not at the expense of who we are as Maori and in New Zealand."
Tuuta's focus is to invest in the younger generation, to ensure there are people coming through who are familiar with China, and have an understanding of the dynamics and culture of its market. Growing Maori presence in China will require patience and focus, but is an incomparable opportunity for key primary sector businesses. "Time and exposure is important because that builds confidence."
* Maori Trustee
* Presides over 2000 trusts, companies and joint ventures, and 100,000ha of Maori-owned land