Unserious defenders of NZ national interests

Our government finally made sufficient obeisance and secured a modest upgrade to its preferential trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China.  That included New Zealand agreeing (page 4) to take twice as many PRC-funded ideologically pre-screened Mandarin Language Assistants in our schools (rather than, say, properly funding language learning in schools ourselves).   The values-free cheerleaders for New Zealand deference and subservience to Beijing were all out praising the deal, and if the shameless National Party trade spokesman Todd McClay –  the one who last year was defending the PRC brutality in Xinjiang as being no more than a few vocational training schools and really none of anyone’s business –  was a bit carping and critical, he and his party were probably only critical that the current government does not (quite) do the full kowtow (they did actually sign that 22 country letter on Xinjiang, even if not one of them –  not an official, not a Minister, certainly not the Prime Minister –  will say a word about it).

Remarkably, for a pretty secretive government, sometimes one gets more coverage from the PRC government side than from our own.  The PRC Embassy here often has interesting statement or commentaries on its website.  There was such a commentary this week about the Prime Minister’s meeting with Li Keqiang in Thailand, including the prefential trade agreeement update, although for some mysterious reason I couldn’t see it on the PRC New Zealand embassy website but only on the PRC US embassy website.

Two lines caught my eye. There was this from the Chinese side

The Chinese side is committed to creating a market-oriented, and law-based international business environment, and hopes that the New Zealand side will create a level playing field in New Zealand for Chinese companies to invest and start business.

(One might scoff at the first half of that, but my interest was the second half)

and this describing the New Zealand government’s response

The New Zealand side is willing to provide a non-discriminative environment for companies from all countries investing and starting business in New Zealand.

Others noticed it to.  Here was the Executive Director of the China Council, the government/business propaganda arm of the New Zealand/PRC relationship

Pretty predictable (anything for the PRC, if only we – they – can get some more deals in the short term, is pretty much the China Council stance), but pretty unfortunate too.

The government is, or at least says it is, reviewing the Overseas Investment Act.  It was September last year when they issued terms of reference for the review.    There was a consultation document released in April this year, with a very short period for submissions, because –  according to the Cabinet paper released under the OIA – they wanted to ensure they had legislation passed this parliamentary term.  And yet here we are, now getting on for mid-November and nothing more has been heard.  They don’t seem to have even published the submissions yet.

National security was one of the dimensions covered (albeit superficially) in the consultation document.    Now ‘national security’ is one of those catch-alls that can be grossly abused –  see Trump’s grounds for steel tariffs on Canadian imports –  but the fact that it can be abused does not change the other, rather more important fact, that national security is an important issue, there are real threats (actual/potential), and one of the key roles of any government is to protect national security.    And, on the other hand, business interests have no particular concern for national security, especially if it gets in the way of their activities.

The worry here –  as the Prime Minister’s commitments are reported by the PRC –  is that neither does the government.    We seem to have governments more interested in enabling New Zealand businesses abroad, than in protecting the security, values, and integrity of New Zealand.

I generally have a pretty open approach to foreign investment.  It is often economically helpful and generally mutually beneficial.  Among firms and individuals from free and open societies, sharing similar values, and where companies are free to pursue their interests not those of their governments that is a pretty strong starting proposition.  Perhaps even more so when it involves investment from companies in countries near the frontiers of economic performance and productivity.  Personally, I’d favour removing pretty much all restrictions on such investment from abroad (perhaps preferably reciprocally, but the benefits to New Zealand mostly arise from opening up ourselves –  rather like removing all New Zealand tariffs (something successive governments refuse to do) would benefit New Zealand consumers).

I wrote about this briefly some months ago when I was lodging my own submission to the Overseas Invesment Act review, including how we should think about investment from the People’s Republic of China  and why treating all countries similarly simply does not make much sense (since neither the opportunities nor the risks are the same).  Here is what I wrote then

These days, New Zealand does not get much foreign direct investment –  and especially not much in the way of greenfields new developments.  I don’t think the screening etc regime is the main reason –  mostly, I suspect, we don’t have that much foreign investment because (a) there are few opportunities here, and (b) for the same sorts of reasons business investment generally has been weak for decades (high cost of capital, high real exchange rate, high taxes on business profits –  in that case, especially for foreign investors).  But I’d generally favour a more liberal environment, for almost all industries and for investors of almost all countries.

It is also worth recognising that most of any benefit (to productivity in New Zealand for example) from foreign investment will come from investment by firms based in rich and advanced countries.  Of course, there might be rare exceptions –  a firm based in Zambia, Laos or El Salvador –  but they will be exceptionally rare (the best ideas, technologies, management systems etc) will be in the rich countries –  part of why they got, and stay, rich.  So I’d favour a pretty-much open slather approach to foreign investment –  existing assets or new –  for investors based in rich countries (the OECD membership might be a decent starting point, and one could add in places like Singapore and Taiwan.

For most of the poorer or smaller countries, I really don’t care much what the rules are.  Probabilistically, there is almost nothing at stake (at least in economic terms) in maintaining restrictions on Zambia, Laos, El Salvador (or 100 others) if that is what the political process demands.  But, equally, there isn’t much risk or downside to opening up to them either, especially if one is focused on the benefit of New Zealanders being (generally) able to sell to the highest bidder.

There are various odious regimes in the world.  Most them don’t matter much to New Zealand at all (thinking places like Equatorial Guinea).  But the PRC does and in my view we should –  while the regime remains as it is – be treating investment from there quite differently, for various reasons.    One is a straightforward economic one.  Almost any large PRC firm is either an SOE or has a significant element of state/Party control to it.  We spent years here trying to reduce the hand of the state in direct business operations in New Zealand.  State entities typically don’t run businesses well, don’t allocate investment efficiently, and so on.  There is no more likelihood (to put it mildly) that PRC state-controlled companies will do so than the New Zealand government ones will –  and at least the New Zealand government ones are ultimately answerable to New Zealanders.  Such investment is likely to be a net negative for New Zealand even if the price paid to the initial New Zealand vendor is higher than that vendor could have got from another –  private –  purchaser, whether from New Zealand or another country.

But the deeper reason is that the PRC is a big and powerful totalitarian state, that has repeatedly displayed aggressive intent, which has values antithetical to those of most New Zealanders.   Individual PRC buyers may well be perfectly decent well-intentioned people –  as plenty of 1930s Germans were too –  but a totalitarian state has, and repeatedly demonstrated, its leverage over its own people, by fair means and (too often) foul.  We would simply be ill-advised to allow PRC-associated interests to have significant investments in many sectors in New Zealand.  One could think of media or telecom companies, or tech firms.    The PRC banks operating here should be a matter of concern, especially if they get materially larger than they are now.   But the concern should range wider.  For example, the greater the control PRC interests have of elements of the dairy industry, the more difficult New Zealand might find it to be handle the sort of economic coercion the PRC has attempted to engage in re various countries in recent years.

And, of course, to circle back to my earlier point, it is not as if the PRC is one of the world’s advanced economies.  Productivity levels languish far behind even New Zealand’s modest levels, and everyone recognises the dependence the regime has had on industrial espionage.  Deep pockets aside –  with a mix of market and non-market motives –  how much genuine benefit to New Zealanders is there likely to be from PRC foreign investment over time?

It is possible that this sort of restrictive regime could come at some economic cost, in terms of lost productivity opportunities for New Zealand. My sense is that it would probably be quite a small cost, but we can’t be sure.  Perhaps more importantly, many precautions have a cost –  whether it be a national defence force, Police, anti-virus software, or a lock on your front door.  The PRC is a threat to New Zealand and countries like us, and we need to be willing to spend some resources (perhaps sacrifice some short-term opportunities) to establish some resilience to those threats.

But, of course, our elected “leaders” and business establishment figures have no interest in any of this.  For them, it seems, the character of the regime matters not a jot, it demonstrated track record at home, abroad, and in New Zealand matter not a jot.  There are deals to be done, donations to be collected, and  –  if there are any risks –  well that will be someone else’s problem another day.  And in the process they’ve allowed our political system to become corrupted, indifferent to the character of the regime, indifferent to the values of New Zealanders.  But their “friends in Beijing” are no doubt happy.

I didn’t post a link then to my short submission, but I will do so now.

Submission on. reform of Overseas Investment Act May 2019

Some excerpts.  First, the liberalising proposal

As a general proposition, I suggest that the government should look at a model which more clearly distinguishes between countries which, broadly share similar values, interests, legal systems and approaches to business and remove all (or almost all) restrictions on foreign investment originating from such countries. A starting point for such a list might be the OECD countries plus Singapore and Taiwan. If the beneficial owners of a potential investor are predominantly from these countries, it isn’t obvious that the net benefits from screening would outweigh the costs, including deterrence of investment, of such a regime. Much of world cross-border foreign investment originates from these countries (and the countries at or near productivity frontiers are included in this group), and to the extent that there are prospective economic gains from liberalising the regime, those gains are likely to arise in respect of these countries.

And on the other hand

And at the other end of the spectrum should be a small list of named countries from which we should simply not welcome foreign direct investment, and where the presumption should be against granting approval for any but the smallest and most innocuous of investments. Such a list might include countries subject to United Nations sanctions (notably North Korea), mostly for global good-citizen reasons, and membership of the list might change over time – Germany might have appeared in the late 1930s, the Soviet Union and its satellites during the Cold War – but the key country that should feature on any such list today would be the People’s Republic of China.

In other words, the issue is not specific countries for all time, but specific assessments of the character of regimes, their control over business, and the nature of any threat.

The consultation document makes every effort to be neutral as between countries. But that is a mistake. It is right to recognise that the source of potential threats can change over time, but unless the government is willing to openly confront the nature of specific potentially-threatening countries, it is difficult to build a regime that will serve well both the national security and economic interest imperatives, and provide a clear framework for potential investors (and potential vendors).

What of the PRC?

The issues around the PRC are twofold. First, many of the larger potential foreign investors are state-owned enterprises (or state-controlled ones). We moved to reduce the role of state-owned companies in our economy, for good sound efficiency reasons, and we should establish a presumption in our foreign investment regime that foreign state-owned enterprises (especially ones that cannot operate at a genuine arms-length from government ownership/control) are unlikely to offer potential efficiency gains for the New Zealand economy. And second, because the People’s Republic of China is a regime (a) in which no one can operate fully at arms-length from the authorities (Party or state), (b) has a demonstrated record of not operating as a market economy, (c) shares almost none of the values of New Zealanders, and (d) represents a clear potential threat to the integrity and security of other countries, including in any future period of conflict. The fact that there may be many good, well-intentioned, investors from the PRC should simply not be relevant here, any more than the presence of decent well-intentioned Germans in the late 1930s should have left countries relaxed about German foreign investment at the time. The issue isn’t the individuals, but the authorities to which they are subject.

The risks around foreign investment from the PRC are not restricted to more-obviously sensitive assets (eg major media outlets or telecommunications systems) but apply more generally, partly because of the importance of PRC state-sponsored industrial espionage, but also because of the pervasive use by the PRC system of all sorts of potential sources of influence or connection. For example, vertically-integrated production and supply chains (including in the dairy industry, or the tourism sector would more difficult to withstand PRC attempts at economic coercion of the sort seen in various other countries in the last decade Investment from PRC sources represents a different and, generally, much more severe set of risks than that from Singapore, South Korea, Ireland or Canada.

More generally

The issue can be thought of in terms of a 2×2 matrix: there are benign countries large and small, and more troubling countries large and small. It is the larger and more troubling countries our restrictions should be focused on, and with regard not just to the current situation and immediate threats, but to maintaining resilience over, say, a 10 or 20 year horizon.

And to revert to the PRC

It is possible that such a near-complete ban on PRC-sourced foreign investment could come at some – likely modest – economic cost, the character of any such cost should not be seen as much different in kind to the price we pay for national defence and security systems. Without that expenditure, private consumption could be higher now – and potentially for decades to come – but we choose not to take that option because the recognise that there are risks and threats.

In this, as in other areas of public life, we shouldn’t be afraid to name the potentially hostile state and act accordingly, even as we would welcome such a state back into the fold when if the character of the regime changes. Germany and Japan were once our greatest threat, and are now close allies. They changed their regimes, systems, and strategic intent. When and if the government of China does, we should welcome foreign investment from there, commensurate with the values and practices of the new system. For now, however, we allow our system and society to be corroded from within to the extent we open our economy to significant PRC foreign investment, whatever the apparent short-term gains to individual vendors might be. It isn’t, by any means, the only (or perhaps even most important) set of PRC risks and threats but it is the one that is the subject of this consultation.

Businesses won’t care.  Governments should.  Ours appears not to.  The focus always –  be it on defence, the political system itself, or whatever (foreign investment, Confucius Institutes) – seems to be to minimise the issues, do as little as possible, try to pretend to the public there really isn’t an issue or potential threat at all.  That is pretty shameful and inexcusable.  That is our Prime Minister (and, of course, her chief rival has form suggesting that if anything he’d be worse on this score).

Talking of long-delayed inquiries, the Justice Committee’s inquiry into foreign interference –  the one the government didn’t want to open for public submissions at all –  has still not reported, and no reform legislation has been presented to Parliament either.   The big issues here are less about legislation than about will and mindset.  But again all the evidence points in the direction of big political parties preferring to minimise the issues to the very greatest extent possible.  Jian Yang, and the National and Labour Party “friends in Beijing” will be happy.