Prime Minister Bill English and Premier Li Keqiang unveiled a start date for negotiations to upgrade the China-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement at their formal signing ceremony and joint news conference at Premier House in Wellington on Monday, but it was Premier Li's rejection of accusations about steel dumping that stood out.
Premier Li was asked by a New Zealand journalist about an ongoing investigation by MBIE into allegations Chinese firms were dumping steel into the New Zealand market. He initially said he did not have the relevant information to answer the question, but went out of his way to answer it in more detail after a later unrelated question to English, and after he was passed a note by a Chinese official.
Premier Li said China only exported 10 percent of its steel output and that its zinc coated steel exports to New Zealand only made up five percent of New Zealand's total steel imports.
"Most of New Zealand still imports now from other countries, not China," he said. "China is not dumping steel products in New Zealand."
He went on point out that "actually" 50 percent of China's dairy imports come from New Zealand, "but we haven't said that New Zealand is dumping dairy products in New Zealand."
English later told reporters he was not surprised by Premier Li's comments about steel and his mention of the large dairy exports to China in the same answer as the discussion about steel dumping, saying it was natural for discussion about such issues to be "robust."
Elsewhere, English said they had not discussed Chinese infrastructure companies bidding for the Auckland City Rail Link (CRL) project.
RNZ's Phil Pennington reported earlier today suggesting a Chinese state-run construction firm would bid to build parts of the CRL rail tunnel project, with hundreds and possibly thousands of workers from China being used to build the project, but living on cruise ships moored in Auckland.
English said he was unaware of such a plan, but said any bidder would have to abide by New Zealand laws, and said he doubted the housing of Chinese workers in such a way would be legal. He also said he was unaware of a report that China Rail had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Northland Regional Council about building motorways and rail links from Whangarei to North Port and Marseden Point.
Elsewhere, the highlights of the agreements signed today included:
the agreement to begin talks to upgrade the NZ-China FTA on April 25 in Beijing. English later told his news conference that limits set in 2008 on dairy imports into China had been superceded by the fast growth since then, and New Zealand hoped to get those limits relaxed. See more details here.
an agreement to give access for New Zealand chilled meat exports to China for 10 companies for a six month trial period. New Zealand also agreed to allow China to export 'retail-ready' fresh unpeeled onions to New Zealand.
an increase in the number of direct flights from China to New Zealand from 49 to 59 under their air services agreement.
a Memorandum of Arrangement on Strengthening Cooperation on China's so-called Silk Belt and Road Initiative, which is a massive series of infrastructure projects to enable better trade access across Asia to Europe and through the South China seas to Europe. Details about the arrangement were vague. Their statement said the Initiative presented commercial opportunities for New Zealand companies and the arrangement allowed New Zealand to "engage in China's key regional integration strategy in a way that makes sense to the shape of both economies";
an agreement to make 2019 a China-New Zealand Year of Tourism.