By Charlotte Greenfield
AUCKLAND (Reuters) – New Zealand is willing to work with China on its Belt and Road initiative and can offer its expertise in areas such as regulation and the environment, officials from the Pacific nation’s government said on Monday.
The investment policy championed by Chinese President Xi Jinping has become mired in controversy, with some partner nations bemoaning the high cost of projects. But China’s recent efforts to put a greener face on its infrastructure initiative could smoothen ties with some countries.
“It seems more likely that we can find a win-win situation with China, whether it’s greening the Belt and Road, or helping address some of the issues…around transparency or whether it’s using our regulatory systems, which are amongst the best in the world,” New Zealand’s trade minister David Parker said at an annual China-focused business summit in Auckland.
Parker had travelled to Beijing for the Belt and Road summit in April at which New Zealand had joined Russia and four developing nations to coordinate accounting standards for countries participating in Belt and Road.
Amid Western scrutiny and a U.S. backlash towards Belt and Road, New Zealand’s stance could be a litmus test on how other governments respond to China’s trade and investment plan.
“The fact that we’ve taken a little bit of pause as we’ve worked to really flesh out that arrangement has been no bad thing because Belt and Road has really evolved,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the summit, adding that the infrastructure programme was changing to involve sectors such as service industries.
The small Antipodean nation has long been touted by Beijing as an exemplar of its “firsts” with Western countries, most recently becoming the first Western nation to join the Chinese-spearheaded Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and helping to usher in other developed nations.
But the relationship had hit a stumbling block in recent months under Ardern’s coalition government.
New Zealand has criticised China’s lending to the Pacific, and rejected a bid to allow Chinese technology giant Huawei to take part in the country’s planned 5G network.
An agreement, one of the first with a Western nation on Belt and Road penned under the previous centre-right National government in 2017, had languished months past its 18-month expiry date. Since then Italy and Switzerland have also signed up to the initiative.
But Ardern, who recently returned from her first trip to Beijing as premier, said on Monday that disagreements were normal and the relationship with China was one of New Zealand’s most important.
Two-way trade between the two countries has topped NZ$30 billion (15.1 billion pounds) and the government hoped it would grow further once negotiations were completed on an upgrade of the two nations’ historic free trade agreement.
Parker said that taking part in Belt and Road could improve the relationship between the two nations because it was “very important” to the Chinese administration, “which then creates a space for trade”.
China’s ambassador to New Zealand, Wu Xi, welcomed New Zealand’s offering up its regulatory expertise to Belt and Road, but encouraged a bold idea proposed by some businesses and trade experts to develop New Zealand into a transport and trade hub between Asia and Latin America.
“(Belt and Road) needs New Zealand’s ideas, New Zealand’s creativity and New Zealand’s energy,” she said.
Air New Zealand was among the businesses backing the proposal.
“We’re a little country…we’ve got to step into this space,” said the airline’s chief executive Christopher Luxon. “This is one of the ways…we can have relevance and participate in joining up to emerging parts of the world.”
(Editing by Jacqueline Wong)