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A breakdown of costs released by the council shows it has been spending at least $130,000 a year on a variety of costs - including staffing, travel and accommodation - associated with Project China in recent years.
The total bill has reached $421,240 over the past three years, comprising $132,898 in 2016-17, $155,444 in 2017-18 and $132,898 in 2018-19, the breakdown showed.
Enterprise Dunedin director John Christie said the council had a $150,000 annual budget to cover costs associated with Project China, which was an initiative that formed part of the council's wider 10-year economic development strategy.
Outgoing Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull, speaking at a council meeting earlier this month, had described the spending as "peanuts" compared with the economic returns for Dunedin, and mayor-elect Aaron Hawkins has since confirmed he would continue to build the relationship with China.
Yesterday, Mr Christie said Project China provided a range of benefits, including contributing to the about 1000 students from China who came to Dunedin to study - at schools, the University of Otago or Otago Polytechnic - each year.
Together, those students made up a significant portion of the 5000 international students studying in Dunedin each year.
The international student market was worth an estimated $200million to the city's economy each year, and, by a crude estimate, Chinese students represented about one-fifth of that value, he said.
Short-term study tourism from China - parents and their children coming to Dunedin for brief visits to scout the city and its educational offerings - was worth another $1.6million a year, he said.
Such "try before you buy" visits often resulted in longer-term benefits as well, he said.
"A lot of those students do return back as full international fee-paying students in later years."
Memorandums of understanding signed as part of Project China had also helped unlock research collaboration between institutions in Shanghai and Dunedin, in areas such as Alzheimer's and psychosis research, as well as investment for activities including technology and film, he said.
The longer-term benefits of such initiatives were harder to quantify until the research bore fruit.
The burgeoning relationship with China also helped open doors for businesses, creating employment in Dunedin, although the results could be shrouded by commercial sensitivity, he said.
The University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic were also actively promoting themselves in China, independently of the council, making it harder to quantify the contribution Project China made to Chinese student numbers in Dunedin.
But there was no doubt Project China helped build "political credibility" and reassure parents the city would deliver for their children, Mr Christie said.
"I think it does make a difference, particularly at that study tour level.
"Local government is viewed as being a really credible source of information and it does provide assurance to parents that when they send their children out here, our institutions will deliver on what they're promising."
The cost of a Dunedin delegation's trip to China "typically" amounted to $5000-$10,000 per person, but could be as low as $2000, he said.
That was "pretty efficient" compared with the economic return for the city and its ratepayers.
"It's a relatively small investment in terms of on-the-ground costs compared to the return the city's getting, and the value and the reputation we're getting as a city from that."