We should be making our ties with China more diverse and sustainable, says Stephen Jacobi

What is the future of New Zealand's relationship with China?

Chances are you will get as many answers to this question as the number of people you ask: Diversifying exports, attracting more foreign students, encouraging investment, tourism, Chinese language acquisition. The list goes on.

These are all reasonable tactical targets to meet short-term economic objectives. But none of them constitute a long term, cohesive strategy for the New Zealand-China relationship.

What is the bigger question these tactical ideas are seeking to answer?

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How about this: New Zealand needs to achieve a much deeper and more closely integrated social and cultural relationship with China to match our burgeoning economic ties.

If we can find some agreement, it becomes much easier for us to address tactical questions or concerns around trade and investment.

It's going to take long-term thinking to get there. Many of the countries that compete with us for access to China's markets are already thinking and planning for the future.

But too many New Zealanders still view the China relationship through a simple lens of buying and selling.

Simply put, we can no longer afford to pursue our short-term economic interests with China while ignoring the bigger picture.

If we agree a closer social and cultural relationship with China is in our interest, then making our trade ties more diverse and sustainable becomes more of a tactic, and less of a moot point.

The FTA upgrade will hopefully address some of the nagging issues with our more traditional sectors. But we will also be led to pursue new trade opportunities that strengthen our social and cultural ties with China, such as export education, tourism, technology and creative sectors.

It's the same with investment. If as New Zealanders we can agree a closer cultural and social relationship with China is in our interest, then the question becomes "where is the investment best targeted?" rather than "do we want it in the first place?"

We need foreign capital to grow, and China is well-placed to provide that capital. China's investment is growing rapidly but is still a fraction of investment from Australia or the United States.

Even so it's Chinese investment that generates headlines as well as the greatest pushback from the public. Making it harder to invest will simply mean missed economic opportunities for New Zealand.

Stephen Jacobi, NZ US Council executive director.
Stephen Jacobi, NZ US Council executive director.

Thinking strategically about the best use of Chinese investment, and attracting it to the right sectors will enhance the contribution to economic well-being.

This leads to a broader reason that we need longer-term thinking about China: the quid pro quo of cultural integration. There's no point denying some New Zealanders struggle with the changes that increased engagement with China brings, and public perceptions about the benefits of the relationship remains mixed.

But again, if our strategy is to pursue a closer social and cultural relationship with China, then hearing Chinese spoken in the street will be seen as a strength, not something to be feared. The same applies to Chinese music, TV and movies going mainstream in New Zealand. Cultural integration becomes a benefit all of us enjoy, like increasing our exports or raising our gross domestic product.

New Zealand needs to achieve a much deeper and more closely integrated social and cultural relationship with China to match our burgeoning economic ties.

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The New Zealand China Council represents leadership across the length and breadth of the relationship and is committed to developing longer-term strategic thinking about China. This year the council is partnering with McKinsey & Co to carry this forward through a process we are calling "kaihui" -- Chinese for "holding a meeting" -- which sounds very much like the te reo term "kahui" -- a council.

Our kaihu process is a concerted effort to channel the expertise and knowledge of leading New Zealanders who engage with China into recommendations for a long-term, strategic approach to the relationship.

This will give us the fresh ideas, forward-looking targets and clear recommendations for future proofing our ties across trade in goods and services, value from investment, language and culture, public perceptions and more.

China is, after all, a country known for thinking long term, the product of thousands of years of tradition and culture. It's also a country that wants to engage with us more deeply and beyond simply trading in goods and services.

It's sometimes said vision without a strategy is a daydream. Now is the time to develop a well-grounded strategy for our relationship with China.