John McKinnon, New Zealand Ambassador to China, answers questions from Beijing Review reporters on May 8 (WEI YAO)
New Zealand's Ambassador to China John McKinnon told Beijing Review reporters Sudeshna Sarkar and Li Fangfang how the Belt and Road is a man-made sequel to natural links between countries that existed for millennia and how it goes beyond individual nations. Below is an edited version of the interview:
Beijing Review: New Zealand is the first developed Western nation to sign a cooperation agreement with China on the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (Belt and Road) Initiative. What lay behind Wellington's decision?
John McKinnon: New Zealand has been following the development of the Belt and Road Initiative for quite some time. So when Premier Li Keqiang was coming to New Zealand [in March] we had a lot of discussions with Chinese officials about the outcomes of that visit. One of them was to have a memorandum of arrangement on the Belt and Road.
From New Zealand's point of view, the attraction of the initiative is that it's a way of opening up relations between different countries and economies in terms of trade and investment and infrastructure. We are an economy open to the world. We build our wealth on our trade with other countries, including China. Therefore an initiative which is about increasing interaction between the countries within the framework of the Belt and Road is of interest to us. From our perspective, this is an opportunity to explore how our approaches to international economic relations and international trade can play through into a broader region encompassed by the Belt and Road.
The dynamism of the relationship between New Zealand and China exists anyway. There is an increasing flow of people and goods and ideas between China and New Zealand. We have a lot of linkages now with China. To me, the interesting part of [the initiative] is not about New Zealand and China, it's what it means for New Zealand, China and a third country, whether that third country is in the South Pacific, Central Asia, or even possibly in Africa. That to me is where the add-on of the initiative lies.
We reached an agreement to talk over the next 18 months on what we will be doing under this initiative. We will sit down with Chinese agencies and figure out what would be the likely benefits, what would be the areas we would be particularly interested in, and how we will take this forward. We haven't yet reached those decisions. What we do have is a commitment to work with Chinese government agencies to develop a program of work to see how we can together advance this.
The three-way water supply project between New Zealand, China and the Cook Islands is completed on February 16 (XINHUA)
What does New Zealand hope to gain from joining the initiative?
It's too early to say. This is the beginning of a process which might take years, if not longer, to reach its full potential. What New Zealand is looking for are both opportunities for New Zealand businesses and also ways and means in which the welfare of New Zealanders generally will be increased.
In terms of businesses, that's more likely to be in areas such as governance or consultancy or advice rather than actual bridge-building or road-building because that's where our strength lies. New Zealand has expertise in consultancy, also in areas such as animal husbandry, agriculture and environmental protection. Those are all areas which could be of relevance to other countries in the Belt and Road Initiative.
What does New Zealand hope to contribute to the initiative?
We currently have a three-way project between New Zealand, China and the Cook Islands on water quality and water supply in the Cook Islands. We are taking New Zealand and Chinese expertise and skills and connecting them with a need in a Pacific country for the supply of clean drinking water. If I look ahead and think about the connection between the Belt and Road Initiative and New Zealand and the South Pacific, I would imagine it would probably be in a similar sort of vein, whereby you would bring together New Zealand expertise, Chinese expertise and the needs or the requirements of the South Pacific countries and undertake or develop a project.
The Belt and Road Initiative could add a layer which doesn't exist now, it can possibly link, say, a New Zealand company which is expert in environmental management with a Chinese business which may be looking at potential for that sort of work in Central Asia and then they go together in Central Asia and do something there. Thinking laterally, there are the possibilities that might be created by this initiative. If we didn't have it, people might not be thinking in those terms. They might not be thinking in terms of China and New Zealand and something in Central Asia, they might just think of China and New Zealand.
Maybe there are specific projects and infrastructure projects, for instance, like ports. It may be more than that. How do you manage your environment in a Belt and Road country? How do you develop agriculture? They could all become an aspect of this, playing to the strengths of different countries. New Zealand thrives on the principle of comparative advantage. Producing food is one thing we do very well. We produce very good and safe food. Food safety is a very important part of 21st-century life. So New Zealand could be involved in something with a Chinese entity which might have some capital or some more assets to play into that.
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is expected to have a prominent part in implementing Belt and Road projects. With New Zealand being a founding member of AIIB, how do you regard its role?
It's still in its first few years but we have been pleased with the administration and governance of the bank. For us, it was very important when this initiative emerged that the new bank be credible as a multinational institution. It's important for all the members, not just China, that this be an internationally well-regarded institution, and that is the path it seems to be following.
Secondly, we are interested in particular projects that are being recommended and I think some of them would be of interest to New Zealand businesses. That's a narrow band. The broader band is about the bank contributing to the landscape of multilateral banks throughout the world.
How has New Zealand been promoting cultural and people-to-people links?
Cultural cooperation is also part of the Belt and Road memorandum. We have a number of Confucius institutes in the Auckland, Wellington, Victoria and Canterbury universities [teaching Chinese language and culture]. In my previous job I was in charge of the Asia New Zealand Foundation and one of the tasks there was promoting knowledge of Asia, including China, in New Zealand. One of the ways we did that was to organize events at the time of the Lantern Festival—Yuanxiao Dengjie. We would have performers and lanterns from China. The important thing about it was that many of the people who came to look at it were non-Chinese. That was a way of communicating Chinese culture to people who didn't otherwise have much experience [of it].
We have a film co-production agreement with China and we were the first country to have a stand-alone TV co-production with China. A New Zealand studio, Huhu Studios, has been doing a co-production with a Chinese partner, China Film Animation. It's a film called Beast of Burden. A lot of people in China know about New Zealand because The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies were made largely in New Zealand. Peter Jackson, director of those movies, and Richard Taylor, head of New Zealand film props and special effects company Weta Workshop, have been very involved with China. Hobbiton, the Hobbit village in the films, whose sets have been used to create a tourist destination, has many Chinese visitors.
On May 5, I went three hours east of Beijing to the Bohai Sea coast. We have these birds, primarily the Red Knot, who fly every year from New Zealand to Siberia and then they fly back. They stop at the Bohai to feed for a few days and then carry on. Coming from New Zealand to China they fly for seven days and nights without stopping. Then they go further up into Siberia or Alaska. That's where they breed and then with approaching winter they fly back.
This has been going on for millions of years. They were flying long before any of us existed, any country existed. It's a very interesting metaphor. When we think of the Belt and the Road, it's about opening up the linkages between all these countries. Those birds have been doing it for millennia. It's much bigger than New Zealand or China. To me they are a wonderful sign of what the world is all about.
Copyedited by Dominic James Madar
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