Trade Minister David Parker has firmly committed New Zealand to China's Belt and Road Initiative, putting an end to speculation that domestic political differences would stand in the way of a New Zealand work plan being developed.
At a dinner in Beijing, Parker said New Zealand was "very committed" to working with China to develop the bilateral relationship further.
"As we celebrate the accomplishment of having built our trading relationship in excess of $30 billion, we have also got other things to look forward to and celebrate.
"The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the plan to upgrade our free trade agreement being two such matters we can be excited about."
Thorny issues — such as the bid by Chinese telco supplier Huawei to be part of Spark's upgrade to 5G — were not addressed directly during Parker's meetings with three Chinese Cabinet ministers.
But it is understood that during discussions on New Zealand's proposed introduction of a national interest test for foreign direct investment, the Chinese side made it clear that it should be non-discriminatory.
Guests at the Parker dinner — which included some key Chinese investors as well as others doing bilateral business from both New Zealand and China — were upbeat about his address.
He made it clear that New Zealand valued its relationship with China and said it was in "good heart".
Parker's positioning statements came on the eve of Chinese President Xi Jinping's opening speech to the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing yesterday, where he sought to defuse concerns about his signature project, vowing to prevent debt risks and saying his global infrastructure project "is not an exclusive club".
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While both Parker and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have recently swung New Zealand support towards the initiative — notably a photograph of Xi and Ardern shaking hands during the PM's recent one-day visit to Beijing was displayed prominently on the Belt and Road website — Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has been openly sceptical.
The BRI in essence reinvents the ancient Silk Road in modern terms. It is not only planned to link Asia to Europe and Africa through maritime, road and rail projects, but there is also talk of the BRI sweeping through to Australasia and Latin America.
In an interview with this columnist, Parker spelt out that New Zealand was not seeking infrastructure investment from China under the BRI. But there were areas where both nations could co-operate such as on trade facilitation and the ease of doing business.
Soundings indicate that an ambitious NZ-led project to form an aviation and sea transport link from China through New Zealand and on to Latin America does not yet enjoy political support from NZ First.
Parker did, however, raise the project during a bilateral meeting with China Southern Airlines chiefs in Guangzhou earlier in the week. China Southern gets the big picture strategy but also wants to bed down its current routes to New Zealand and ensure they are fully profitable before extending through to Latin America.
Irrespective, Ambassador Wu Xi said the proposal for a linking hub provided great potential on how New Zealand could benefit from the BRI.
Alibaba representatives also took the opportunity to pitch their proposal for an e-commerce logistics hub in New Zealand. But again, while NZ First MP Shane Jones — who is also Regional Development Minister — believes it has potential, the idea does not enjoy universal support from NZ First.
This has been Parker's most substantive visit to China as a minister in the Ardern Government. He plans to scope new areas of co-operation on science and innovation, particularly as it relates to environmental challenges, saying this would transcend national boundaries.
The upgrade of the free trade agreement has been Parker's other key focus in Beijing. New Zealand officials are seeking improved access in priority areas such as wood and paper, services and e-commerce.
Parker says a successful upgrade will also be a demonstration of both countries' commitment to trade and a rules-based system, and "our rejection of protectionism".