It is not every year or even every decade that a President or Vice-President of the United States visits New Zealand. It happened last in 1999 when President Clinton was here for an Apec summit. That was nearly three decades after the visit of Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who came just five years after President Lyndon Johnson had called seeking support for the Vietnam war.
Vice-President Joe Biden arrives later today with the country much less divided on the US relationship than it was for the Agnew visit in 1970 or when Clinton was here.
The US long ago accepted that this country is no longer an ally as reliable as Australia in this part of the world. New Zealand is in a more fortunate strategic position and does not feel the same compulsion to join every US military mission. Wisely, the previous Government took no part in the invasion of Iraq but sent troops to help the reconstruction effort. The present Government has sent soldiers to assist the war against Isis in a non-combat role.
But the relationship rests on much more than military appearances. New Zealand is fully committed to the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangements with Anglo-American partners and, even more important, it has taken a leading part, with the US, in the ground-breaking trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If the TPP, rather than war or nuclear weapons, is the prime target of the inevitable protest today, Vice-President Biden will not be surprised. The deal has been demonised in his own country and both candidates for the presidency appear to be against it.
But he and Barack Obama were also against it before their election in 2008, and they came to terms with it. So probably would Hillary Clinton, though nobody can be confident of Donald Trump. But if there is a greater demon than trade deals in Trump's rhetoric, it is China, and much of the TPP's appeal to Washington is its exclusion of China. On that issue New Zealand takes a different view.
China will be high on the agenda when John Key meets Biden. The US Navy had been testing China's intentions in the South China Sea as they awaited the decision from The Hague on China's assertion of rights to the area under the Law of the Sea. The US supported the case brought against China by the Philippines while New Zealand remained neutral. But in view of the tribunal's ruling, there can no doubt which side New Zealand would take if push came to shove. New Zealand, however, sees no need for a push or shove.
If China is determined to develop military outposts on the islands it has claimed or made, the tribunal's ruling does not say it cannot. And so long as it does not impede shipping in the South China Sea, its territorial claims need not concern countries outside Southeast Asia. Those countries have their own dealings with China and the US should play no more than a supporting role for them.
The Vice-President should enjoy his 24 hours here. His personality and his politics are closer to a Kiwi style than most American officials we greet. It has been a while but good to see him.