The second most powerful politician in China has touched down in New Zealand - championing free trade at a time when the United States is turning towards protectionism.

Premier Li Keqiang, whose influence is such that he is sometimes called "Chairman of Everything" in China, is travelling with a 200-strong government and business delegation, and his wife, Professor Cheng Hong, who specialises in American literature.

The Premier, also referred to as prime minister, travelled to New Zealand from Australia, where he and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull both warned against trade protectionism.

The backdrop to those comments is the Presidency of Donald Trump, who has vowed to "buy American" and withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

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In a speech to business leaders on Friday, Prime Minister Bill English noted a "rather odd situation" where China was pushing a policy which "we are much more comfortable with than, say, the direction of the US".

Li touched down in Wellington tonight. He was met by English at the airport's military terminal.

The Premier stepped off his plane, was surrounded by officials, gave a quick wave towards media then stepped into his car and his motorcade took off for Premier House where a dinner is being held.

High on the agenda during Li's visit will be the negotiations to upgrade the NZ-China free trade agreement signed in 2008.

New Zealand was the first developed country to sign a FTA with China and has been pushing for an upgrade after other countries including Australia signed FTAs on more favourable terms in some areas. A focus will be on eliminating non-tariff barriers (NTBs).

And Trade Minister Todd McClay has said he wants New Zealand to play "a very big role" in China's new Silk Road strategy, known as One Belt One Road, that aims to invest trillions of dollars in overseas infrastructure projects.

The initiative has caused debate in Australia about Chinese influence and the possibility joining could affect relations with the US, but McClay told Q&A that New Zealand already looked to overseas investment to build infrastructure, including new hotel projects in Auckland.

The South China Sea dispute could also be discussed during Li's visit.

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Li made an unusually detailed defense of China's build-up of military equipment on artificial islands in the sea during a press conference in Australia, saying it was to maintain "the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea".

Countries including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims to the resource-rich territory.

China has been criticised by the United States and Australia for building up its military capacity in the disputed region.

New Zealand takes no position on the various claims, but has been critical of the tension caused by China's reclamation of land.

Another delicate issue could be the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's anti-dumping investigation into Chinese steel - launched despite the Chinese Government saying the allegations were a "wild guess" with "no merit".

The complaint about alleged steel dumping to MBIE was cited in media reports last year as a reason China could retaliate against New Zealand dairy and kiwifruit exporters in a "trade war".

Zespri subsequently confirmed that one of its Beijing representatives was given "unsubstantiated information" by a Chinese industry body about the prospect of trade restrictions by China.

Li, named by Forbes Magazine as the world's 12th most powerful person, heads China's government and executive and manages the implementation of national economic development policy and the state budget.

That focus on the economy has seen him develop a relationship with English, who as Deputy Prime Minister hosted Li's 2009 visit to New Zealand. English has also met with Li while in Beijing, and the two were involved in discussions on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

New Zealand agreed to become a founding member of the bank in 2015, established by China as a counter-weight to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.