The Government appears to be taking a half-in, half-out approach to Xi Jinping’s flagship soft power initiative, with a bilateral agreement extended despite no tangible progress on any projects

New Zealand’s involvement with the controversial Belt and Road Initiative has been extended for another five years, even as the Government continues to drag its heels on a formal work plan with the Chinese government.

Confirmation of the extension comes as Kiwi officials have refused to release official briefings and reports on Chinese president Xi Jinping’s flagship initiative.

In March 2017, the National government signed a “memorandum of arrangement” with Chinese premier Li Keqiang outlining a proposal for the two countries to work together on the Belt and Road Initiative.

Launched by Xi in 2013, the trillion-dollar initiative is focused on developing Chinese-led infrastructure projects and other economic initiatives throughout the world, on ancient land and sea routes which formed part of the Silk Road.

The agreement required the two countries to develop a Belt and Road work plan within 18 months of its signing, but the plans slowed when the Labour-led government took power at the end of 2017 as foreign affairs minister Winston Peters shared his reservations about the project. 

The first five-year term of the bilateral agreement expired earlier this year. However the deal has a clause which automatically extends its operation for five-year increments “unless and until terminated by either participant by giving written notice to the other side three months before the expiration of the arrangement”.

There have been no public Belt and Road engagement by New Zealand ministers since David Parker visited China’s Belt and Road Forum in 2019, while any references to the initiative were conspicuously absent from the both countries’ summaries of the meeting between Xi and Jacinda Ardern at this month’s Apec summit.

In a statement, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokeswoman confirmed to Newsroom that the agreement had  “auto-renewed in March 2022 for a period of five years”.

However, the spokeswoman confirmed there had been no progress on discussions regarding a Belt and Road work plan, saying: “We continue to be open to BRI cooperation on a case-by-case basis.”

While China’s slowing economy, the Covid-19 pandemic and pushback to some elements of Belt and Road – such as allegations of “debt trap diplomacy” – have acted as impediments to the initiative’s progress, Xi and the Chinese leadership remain firmly supportive.

The president’s report to the CCP’s 20th national congress last month included a reference to promot[ing] the high-quality development of the Belt and Road Initiative”, while Xi has indicated the Chinese government may host a third Belt and Road Forum next year marking its 10th anniversary.

Western countries have largely stayed away from the initiative, with Australia’s federal government tearing up an agreement signed by the Victorian state government due to its inconsistency with the country’s foreign policy.

Earlier this year, Newsroom sought to obtain more information about New Zealand’s work on the Belt and Road Initiative through the Official Information Act. However, Mfat refused to release any briefings or documents to avoid prejudicing national security or defence – despite having previously provided information in response to identical requests from previous years.

The Ombudsman’s Office is currently considering a complaint in relation to the ministry’s decision.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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