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China's big idea - the Belt and Road initiative - will need Kiwi smarts

Stephen Jacobi


New Zealand’s knowledge industries could benefit from opportunities opened by China’s Belt and Road initiative.

OPINION: China has a really big idea and would value our help.

The big idea is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  It's all about boosting global connectivity between countries through development-led trade.  New Zealand has expressed interest in exploring the idea, as have 80 other countries and international organisations who want to carve out their own unique roles in the initiative.  

The New Zealand China Council has just released a report prepared by PwC identifying four ways New Zealand can contribute – in trade facilitation, the conduit New Zealand provides between China and Latin America, innovation and the creative sector. 

The report provides a pathway for boosting greater connectivity with China, which could be of direct economic benefit to the country.

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How could BRI benefit New Zealand in new ways?  Let's focus on just two examples from the NZ China Council report – trade facilitation and the creative sector.  These are both areas where New Zealand has something unique to offer, has a comparative advantage, and through which we can contribute without compromising our existing relationships.  

Trade facilitation is about reducing the time and cost of doing business. The BRI could result in a huge expansion of trade flows, and therefore an increase in the need to ensure trade moves smoothly along the new trade routes created.  


There will, for example, be a need for greater biosecurity expertise between participating countries. New Zealand is renowned as a global leader in this area and has an opportunity to provide that expertise to China and the other BRI nations that trade agricultural goods.

The Better Border Biosecurity Sentinel Plant Project, set up to reduce the entry of new plant pests and diseases, is one project that could be extended to China's Belt and Road Initiative.  The project brings together government and science agencies and represents classic 'NZ Inc' collaborative thinking. It's exactly the kind of local knowledge for which BRI will generate significant future demand.

Our creative sector can also look forward to new opportunities generated from our involvement in BRI.  We already have a good number of film and TV co-productions underway with China, and could expect these to increase, not only with China but also potentially with others.  

There's good scope to develop creative assets to increase understanding between peoples and cultures along the Belt and Road.  These could be digital games, interactive simulations or even location-based experiences. We have game developers in Dunedin, VR workshops in Christchurch, and film and creative industries in Wellington and Auckland with the know-how, ideas and contacts to leverage BRI for their benefit.  

Similar opportunities exist to boost innovation co-operation and commercialisation and to find ways to leverage New Zealand's geographical location with the most convenient sea and air links between China and Latin America.  These are further outlined in our report.

Of course, getting involved in BRI is not purely about the economic benefits we can extract.  It's also about recognising that BRI is at the heart of Chinese policy, and increasingly a framework through which it engages with the rest of the world. 

New Zealand is currently in the middle of complex negotiations to upgrade our FTA with China – showing an active interest in BRI will demonstrate how much we value our long-term relationship and ensure that New Zealand remains well-positioned with our largest trading partner in the light of current global trade tensions.

There are some in New Zealand who see BRI purely in geopolitical terms. It would be unwise of us not to take account of potential risks in engaging with BRI, particularly with regard to our relationships with traditional partners. 

The NZ China Council report identifies these risks and considers them in relation to the proposed areas we have advanced for cooperation. We need to move ahead with our eyes wide open, and in that context debating the parameters of our involvement is helpful. 

But make no mistake – many of our existing partners are already pursuing this engagement. If we were to decide not to engage, both allies and competitors most certainly will.

China has offered New Zealand an opportunity to participate in Belt and Road, but how we do so is up to us. There is no fixed formula or template. BRI is not a binding free trade agreement or treaty.

New Zealand can also help shape the BRI as it evolves by harnessing the wealth of world-class minds we have here in the four areas including trade facilitation and the creative sector. 

By showing how we can use these to contribute to BRI, we can only benefit – not just from increased connectivity with China, but with the 80-odd others who are getting on board the Belt and Road express.

Stephen Jacobi is executive director of the New Zealand China Council, which promotes business ties with China


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