New Zealand’s relationship with China just got bigger than Everest.

After 40 hours of welcomes and challenges, waiata and haka, dragon dances, rice wine and big red banners the visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared the two countries are going to “climb even higher mountains”.

It was put in lyrical terms, with nods to Sir Edmund Hillary, but the promise of bigger and better things between the two countries was unmistakeable.

“Sir Hillary,” as the translator at today’s gala lunch in Auckland put it, had scaled the big one but in his words it “wasn’t the mountain we conquer but ourselves”.

Premier Li said: “That represents the China-New Zealand friendship and cooperation. We will also be able to scale up the highest peaks.”

Of the announcement during his visit that the NZ-China Free Trade Agreement signed nine years ago would be upgraded, he made it clear New Zealand was to be ranked first among developed world nations’ trade arrangements with his country.

“This upgrading of the FTA, if compared with FTAs with all other developed countries, will represent the most advanced level.

“We have established many firsts in our relations, actually becoming an example with China’s relations with developed countries.

“I believe we need to work together and we will be able to set more records in more areas.”

Li said his discussions with Prime Minister Bill English, which included a dinner to which the Chinese leader invited two of English’s sons, had been “in-depth, candid and friendly”.

Cooperation went beyond dairy and agricultural trade to technology, where he believed in-depth links could be forged and extended. The two leaders visited Fisher & Paykel in the morning, and Li cited that company’s involvement with China’s Haier as a prime example of the two countries working together to sell to other markets.

“Our cooperation will not harm any third party but will actually benefit third parties,” he said.

Li addressed the China-US relationship, saying shared interests “far outweigh the differences”. “China and US relations have kept moving forward despite twists and turns. In the future we are confident the China-US relationship is also good for the China-New Zealand relationship, and also for China-Australia” he said, noting the reverse would also be true.

English had a strong message for New Zealanders. Chinese involvement, investment and trade with this country directly provided jobs and boosted household incomes.

“Can I say how much New Zealand owes to the success of the Chinese economy. We particularly appreciate during 2009 and 2010 in the face of the Global Financial Crisis – New Zealand was in a deep recession but because of the engine room effect of the Chinese economy … we were able to pull through.”

When closing, English thanked Li for his commitment to working with New Zealand, but also specifically thanked “those who are making investment in New Zealand”.

The strong public talk from the Chinese leader of keeping New Zealand’s trade connections with China at the most advanced level, compared to Australia and other developed nations, would have been worth all the ceremonial and ritualistic diplomacy.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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