Q&A: China crucial to NZ's post-COVID recovery

This year's China Business Summit, held in Auckland on July 20, attracted a wide range of speakers and participants for the first major business conference since the COVID lockdown. The Foundation's business programme director Felicity Roxburgh took part in a panel discussion on the post-COVID business environment in Auckland. We chat with her about the summit and some of the big issues facing New Zealand's business community.

Felicity Roxburgh addressing an audience alongside fellow panelists

The China Business Summit has become a bit of a fixture in the Auckland calendar – why is it so popular?

Felicity: It's hard to overstate the importance of the China market for the New Zealand economy, and for a broad range of individual businesses and sectors. This is not just about exporters; for example, we also heard from CEO of ANZ Antonia Watson about developments in the banking sector. The Summit is a chance to hear the latest thinking on COVID recovery from New Zealand's largest companies like Fonterra, Air New Zealand and others, along with the political views from the top.

Many businesses understand that their ability to operate successfully in China depends on the health of the bilateral relationship, so it's a chance for them to hear the latest detail around that direct from the PM, Minister of Trade and Chinese Ambassador Madame Wu Xi.

This year was particularly well attended as China has played a role in keeping some high-value exports up during COVID - and because people were really keen to get back together face-to-face. This was also the first major business event since lockdown, which meant there was a real buzz. 

China has become a bright spot in a darker trading world this year – how are NZ businesspeople feeling about trade with China going forward?

I think there's recognition that China, and Asia, will be important in the COVID recovery story. At the same time the pandemic has laid bare some of the supply chain difficulties, (over) reliance issues and sourcing of raw materials, so some businesses will be re-thinking how they operate there. The challenge of going digital is now forefront for many companies, as is how to maintain business relationships while we can't travel.

Trade figures have been very solid in the past few months – which sectors have done the best?

There's a strong appetite for New Zealand's healthy, clean, immune-boosting food, so there are lots of opportunities for companies with those products.

As has been widely reported, kiwifruit has been one of the best performing exports, in part due to vitamin-c content, and is always hugely popular in China. We're seeing an increased focus in China around 'safe food', so there's a trust factor in New Zealand, our regulation, systems and processes. 

What did attendees make of the statement from Chinese Ambassador Wu Xi that essentially New Zealand should mind its own business when it comes to China's domestic political issues?

I think most people would have heard or read about that line before, so are well aware of the political sensitivities around Hong Kong and other domestic Chinese issues.

It's not clear the extent to which kiwi businesses understand the impact that a significant challenge in the political relationship - if New Zealand were to put a foot wrong in China's eyes - could have on their own direct commercial interests. It's also not that clear how many China-focused companies in New Zealand currently have a "plan B" - just in case.

What have Kiwi exporters learned about e-commerce with China since lockdown?

There's a move to more business-to-consumer (B2C) direct trade as e-commerce is becoming increasingly important.

There is a direct feedback loop in e-commerce, so businesses really need to know their customers. At the same time, there is huge competition through E-commerce channels, so we heard how companies need to think hard about their value-add when competing with an increasing range of alternative quality products - in the supermarket retail sector for example.

The conference featured a session on Auckland's economy and the impact of COVID-19 there – what were the main takeaways from that?

I think the main takeaway was that we have an increasing Asian diaspora in Auckland (30% of Auckland's population identify as Asian) with vibrant business ecosystems in the city and extensive offshore networks. We could do better to connect and share knowledge, and this could be of huge benefit to growing Auckland during the recovery.

The idea of China joining the CPTPP was also thrown around – could that ever happen?  

The Asia New Zealand Foundation sponsored Madame Hu Shuli, a respected Chinese journalist and founder of the Caixin magazine to address the Summit.

Caixin magazine founder Madame Hu Shuli

The Foundation sponsored Caixin magazine founder Madame Hu Shuli to speak at the summit

Hu said that while China still has a lot of work to do to meet the conditions of joining the CPTPP – from reform in state-owned enterprises to data security – other countries with similar economic and political systems had signed up.

She intimated that the conditions are maturing for China to join – and Hu is very plugged in, so we can read quite a lot into that.

Ambassador Wu also underscored China's interest in the multilateral trading system; every one of her speeches is carefully pored over, and there's no such thing as a throwaway line in diplomacy, especially not when China's involved!

Felicity Roxburgh

Felicity Roxburgh has over ten years’ experience in diplomacy, with a focus on advancing political, security and economic outcomes for New Zealand in Asia. She has lived in China and undertaken overseas assignments in Hong Kong and New York through the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

As Acting Consul-General in Hong Kong, Felicity worked to develop connections between Hong Kong and New Zealand businesses and to help remove barriers to trade. In New York, she served during New Zealand’s time on the UN Security Council, focusing particularly on peace and security issues affecting the Asia-Pacific region.

 - This article was first published by the Asia Media Centre