New Zealand's far north paves way for China's 'One Belt, One Road'

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - A far-north New Zealand region has agreed to help China Railway Group Ltd invest in infrastructure in the depressed area, a regional council head told Reuters, as China looks to further advance its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) program.

The Northland Regional Council agreed this week to provide China Railway with information on possible investments, such as high-end hotels and roads, and advise the firm on the New Zealand government procurement process and making introductions to national government officials.

It was not specified how much China Railway is planning to invest in Northland.

In particular the regional authority plans to help China Railway bid for the construction of a 22 km (13.6 miles) stretch of national highway from the Northland city of Whangarei to a commercial port at Marsden Point to the south.

“If we can provide some expertise and the system that brings forward some of that investment to help the Northland economy to grow then that makes a whole lot of sense for us,” said Bill Shephard, the council chairman, in a phone interview.

The move is the latest on New Zealand’s part to cooperate on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s OBOR global infrastructure spend to link China to Asia and beyond.

New Zealand became the first Western country to formally recognize China’s program through a bilateral memorandum of understanding last month and was a founding member of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

“Part of our discussions are to explain to them [China Railway] how New Zealand works, and we talked to them about the fact that we’ve got good linkages with government agencies,” Shephard said.

The New Zealand Transport Agency was not immediately available to comment on when it would open a tender for construction of the highway section. China Railway Group did not respond to calls for comment.

Wang Zhenyu, a Beijing-based associate research fellow at China Institute of International Studies, a think-tank linked to the nation’s foreign ministry, said there was a lack of bankable projects in countries along the OBOR route, something that a country like New Zealand offered.

“New Zealand has great need for infrastructure and the two countries have a lot of cooperation potential in this area,” Wang said.

The sub-tropical Northland area, with ancient native forests and long golden beaches, is popular with tourists, but it has struggled as economic activity shifts to more populated areas.

Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Additional reporting by SHANGHAI Newsroom and Brenda Goh; Editing by Tom Hogue