Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once told me New Zealand's strategic utility in the Five Eyes alliance was to be the group's "eyes on" China's spreading influence on the Pacific.
This was back in 2006 when former PM Helen Clark had already embarked on securing the ground-breaking free trade agreement between China and New Zealand.
He bracketed that with a warning that British foreign affairs and security officials — like their US counterparts — were concerned China's spreading wings would upset the regional power balance.
"That's why we've got to make sure you're still along on our side. By using your connection. By being relevant. By being clear in the end your choices will be with the Western alliance in the event of conflict there."
That New Zealand did play just such a role in the Five Eyes intelligence apparatus came into sharp relief when documents released by Edward Snowden in 2015 included one from the US National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013, which showed China at the top of a list of targets it was having monitored by the NZ Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). It said the NZ agency gave the NSA "access to areas and countries that are difficult for the United States to access".
Fifteen years on, Blair's warning resonates — that New Zealand would be expected to sit with the Western alliance in the event of conflict.
It will take sustained international diplomacy and leadership, and significant change — including by China — to ensure the current verbal conflict between the US and China, and Australia and China, does not develop into something much more dangerous.
Jacinda Ardern, like her mentor Clark, is finding out the limits to reasoned diplomacy. All manner of Australian and British politicians are beating up on her and Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta over the latter's comments on Five Eyes.
Mahuta's comment that New Zealand was "uncomfortable" with the intelligence-sharing partnership going further than its remit bombed with some. As she put it: "New Zealand has been very clear, certainly in this term and since we've held the portfolio, not to invoke the Five Eyes as the first point of contact on messaging out on a range of issues that really exist out of the remit of the Five Eyes.
"We've not favoured that type of approach and have expressed it to Five Eyes partners."
Strip out the metaphysical preamble about taniwhas and dragons in her speech to the China Council on Monday and there is a sustained rebuke of the CCP-controlled regime on some major issues such as human rights, including the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the steady encroachment on Hong Kong's democratic framework and the unfortunate debt trap some Pacific Island nations have found themselves in courtesy of Chinese infrastructure aid.
But Mahuta's attempt to drive an independent path was too much for some politicians and commentators from traditional allies. Former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer tweeted that Five Eyes was now "Four eyes and a wink"; British politicians, including the ridiculous Nigel Farage, who claimed New Zealand was forming an alliance with China, were similarly absurd.
A highly experienced senior player in NZ foreign affairs suggested to me that the pile-on by Australian and British politicians was "just the third-level managers showing how muscular they are". Notably, such views were not expressed publicly by either British Prime Minister Boris Johnson or Australia's Scott Morrison.
However, the ridiculous reaction was all too reminiscent of the personal pressure that foreign politicians placed on Clark in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion.
Ardern will brush that off as she must. But there is no doubt that New Zealand is now in a much more acute environment.
Later in the week, Ardern spoke via videolink to the influential Chinese Boao Forum for Asia's annual conference. This year's conference was attended by more than 2600 guests from over 60 countries and regions, and was themed "A World in Change: Join Hands to Strengthen Global Governance and Advance Belt and Road Co-operation."
The Prime Minister's speech was closely organised around a focus on multilateralism — through the WTO and WHO; strengthening global governance; human rights; open markets, and more. She stressed that small countries rely on the rules-based international order and stressed that Covid-19 had focused the need for collective solutions to big issues like climate change, technology and pandemics.
It was not a perfunctory performance by any measure.
But it did bring into play the responsibility Ardern shoulders as host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) leaders meeting this year.
Put aside the alliterative aspects of her concentration on "good, global governance". What Ardern was alluding to at Boao is the need to harmonise supply chains, not just for trade facilitation but also for the distribution of Covid vaccines worldwide.
A predominantly business dialogue between China and New Zealand, which was to be hosted at the forum on Wednesday, did not take place. The Next Federation which had been organising the event cancelled it on the advice of the Boao secretariat.
Former PM Dame Jenny Shipley — who is on the board of the Boao Forum — was to have addressed dialogue participants, and a small coterie of NZ businesspeople with Chinese interests had been mustered. The rationale was that Chinese officials and businesspeople had been slow to confirm their participation.
We are now in a difficult period where this Government will have to fight hard for NZ's independent foreign policy stance at the same time as maintaining confidence with traditional security partners and our major trading partner.