Is big end of China town's NZ investment a political issue, asks Fran O'Sullivan.

Prime Minister John Key enthuses about how many of the seriously "big guys" turned up for a private investors' luncheon he hosted in Beijing during his recent trip to China. But closer to home as the September 20 election nears, foreign investment, particularly from China, is poised to be a political hot potato.

Labour has pledged a foreign investment "shakeup", the Greens want a "buy Kiwi" approach and Winston Peters has slammed the Overseas Investment Office as a "rubber stamp".

Such political realities would not have been up for discussion at Key's luncheon.

Around Ambassador Carl Worker's table at the temporary NZ Official Residence in Sanlitun were the top players from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) - the world's largest bank, which recently opened a branch in downtown Auckland; China Construction Bank (CCB) which will also set up operations here after the Reserve Bank approves its banking licence; Chinese sovereign wealth fund (CIC) and senior commercial players that have acquired stakes in New Zealand companies since the Global Financial Crisis alerted them to a pressing need for capital Down Under and put NZ on their investment radar screens. Major construction players have taken a look at opportunities for the Christchurch Rebuild and other infrastructure projects, but have so far shied away because the projects are too small. Put that to one side.

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Not only are China's major banks setting up operations here (Bank of China is expected to follow ICBC and CCB in ultimately seeking Reserve Bank approval), but also the largest Chinese dairy companies - Yili and Mengniu - which have invested in new processing facilities joining Bright Dairy and Pengxin in introducing competition to Fonterra from its home market.

Then there are commercial property investors like Fu Wah and the New Development Group, set to build new five star hotels in Auckland; Haier with its acquisition of Fisher & Paykel Appliances, Agria's investment in PGG Wrightson and China Southern Airlines' daily flights to Auckland.

Couple the investment from the "big end of China town" with the controversial appetite Chinese investors are now showing for NZ's housing market (particularly in Auckland) and our prime farmland and add to that the investment by Beijing in NZ Government bonds - and it is obvious the integration of the two economies is now in full swing. The level of overall Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in New Zealand is not high - roughly $5 billion out of $101 billion, or 5 per cent of NZ's FDI stock.

But Chinese investment in residential housing and farmland is attracting attention in an election year. Labour's David Cunliffe has pledged a "foreign investment shakeup" if his party gets to lead the Government. NZ First's Winston Peters is against foreigners (not just from China) buying farmland.

Key's Government has ruled out strictures on foreign investment in residential housing, saying it will not follow Australia and ban foreigners from investing in existing stock.

But Key has gone out of his way to steer Chinese investors away from investing in farmland. Not out of any bias against Chinese (US Harvard Funds Management has a larger footprint) but because it is likely to create opportunities for China's dairy companies to vertically integrate and take supply away from Fonterra.

It's a complex situation as, in China, Fonterra is seeking to take part in alliances that will also result in vertical integration of supply chains - something the Chinese Government believes essential if their dairy industry is to move to a safe high-quality platform,

When Key made his first official visit to China in May 2009 the only substantial Chinese investment in New Zealand was Sinotran's 60 per cent holding in Wenita Forest Products which owned and managed over 28,000 ha of forestry estate.

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Five years on, Greater China's investment footprint in New Zealand has grown to about $4.8 billion (Mainland China and Hong Kong) according to a running tally key by NZ officials in China.

Bilateral investment was also on the radar when Key met Chinese president Xi Jinping last month.

The Key trip - dubbed the "milk run" - was presented as an opportunity for New Zealand to redress any lingering ill-feeling on the Chinese side as a result of last year's botulism scare. Key told the Herald China sees a place for companies like Fonterra within its own investment landscape - particularly when they bring to the table vital know-how that China needs.

The reality is that investing within China is essential to secure export trade.

So too, treating Chinese investment here on the same platform as other foreign players.

Chinese PRC FDI in NZ by sector

Primary industry and food- $884m
Forestry - $135m
Manufacturing - $848m
Financial services - $130m
Infrastructure/utilities - $2223m
Hotel/commercial - $556m