China wants to help New Zealand recover from Cyclone Gabrielle, including financing, constructing key infrastructure

The Chinese Ambassador believes China can help New Zealand recover from Cyclone Gabrielle and be more resilient, including through collaboration on the financing and construction of key infrastructure.

In a letter shared on Wednesday evening to Newshub, Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand Wang Xiaolong says China sees "a lot of potential for China and New Zealand to work together", including on infrastructure development.

China has a history of financing infrastructure projects around the world, particularly through its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China sees it as a way to strengthen ties between the countries, but critics have argued it's just a mechanism for China to grow its power or influence globally and put some countries receiving funding into debt traps. 

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on Thursday said he didn't have details of whether the Chinese have formally offered assistance, but New Zealand would work with others where appropriate. 

One area mentioned by Wang is exploring "opportunities to engage in progressive practical collaboration on, ie, the planning, financing and construction of infrastructure in relation to transport, telecommunication, power transmission and flood prevention and control and other areas of mutual interest and benefit".

"Hopefully, such cooperation can go some way towards the current efforts at recovery in New Zealand and longer-term and broader sustainable development in both countries."

He said while New Zealand was currently focused on the immediate cleanup and relief following Cyclone Gabrielle, he has noted "discussions have started on some of the longer-term issues", including the construction of disaster-resilient infrastructure.

Cyclone Gabrielle caused severe damage to parts of the North Island, particularly the east coast around Gisborne and Hawke's Bay, when it hit in mid-February. Among the damaged infrastructure is about 400km of state highway

The Prime Minister has stressed the need for future infrastructure to be more resilient, including potentially needing to change where roads are. Last week, Hipkins said resilience would be one of the top priorities of the Government's future transport plan.

There were also telecommunication and power outages on the east coast due to breaks in important fibre lines and flooding at substations as a result of the cyclone. Hipkins has said New Zealand can do better in preparing the telecommunications system for these events.

The Ambassador said in his letter that China is one of the most natural-disaster-prone countries in the world and has experience with "enhancing the resilience of infrastructure".

"We have been learning our lessons, both from our own journey and from other countries' experiences. Based on those, we have, for example, put in place some of the most extensive flood prevention and control systems as well as some of the highest-standard road and railway networks in the world. 

"But we still have a long way to go. And progressive improvement depends on continuing to work and share with others both ways."

He said New Zealand and China could compare notes and share best practices. 

"China is keen to learn from New Zealand, and is also happy to share our experiences if it is useful. We could also work together on the standards for sustainable and resilient infrastructure to promote higher quality, better preparedness for natural disasters, including extreme weather events, and at the same time, affordable cost. 

"Another area we could learn from each other is how to create a favourable policy, legal and regulatory environment to enable stronger and deeper cooperation for better development in this regard."

Hipkins on Thursday said he didn't want to comment on every individual offer of assistance that comes from other countries.

"We gratefully receive offers of international assistance in terms of the recovery and we have a process of working through those. Where it is appropriate and where it meets our needs we do work with international partners."

He gave the example of countries like Australia and Fiji helping in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone. 

"We will continue to accept offers where it meets our needs. I think it's wonderful that the international community is being so generous in the offers they are making to New Zealand."

Launched in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the BRI is a scheme through which China assists in developing infrastructure projects in other countries. 

In 2017, the former National Government signed a memorandum of arrangement with China to work together on the BRI. A "more detailed plan" was to be developed within 18 months, but has yet to come to fruition. 

While the memorandum was only meant to last five years, it includes a clause automatically extending it unless either China or New Zealand objected. Newsroom reported last year that the agreement did automatically renew last March for another five years and no progress has been made on the more extensive plan.

In 2021, amid growing tensions between Australia and China, the Australian Federal Government quashed the Victorian state's BRI agreement with China. Then-Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said it wasn't consistent with Australia's foreign policy.