COMMENT:

Who's piloting New Zealand's relationship with its largest trading partner — China? Jacinda Ardern or Winston Peters?

That question has been bubbling away since Peters' pivotal December speech in Washington where the foreign minister "unashamedly" sought to "enlist greater US support in the region (Pacific)" — one which had become "more contested and its security ever more fragile".

It's a question which the Prime Minister, who has to keep peace with her deputy PM and coalition partner, has been determined not to answer directly.

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Even when the answer should really be obvious.

But as China panic set in following a range of snafus last week, that position became untenable.

It was time for her to speak out.

Ardern answered the leadership question by delivering an unambiguous statement on New Zealand's relationship with China on Monday.

The statement was obviously crafted for the Chinese foreign affairs cable traffic.

But unfortunately, Ardern backed away in subsequent press interviews when she was again asked if she expected the Foreign Minister to give her advance warning on major policy speeches and could not give a "yes" answer.

The question of just who is piloting the bilateral relationship has also been top of mind for Chinese officials.

As Chinese ambassador Wu Xi put it on Monday, in a nudge to the Prime Minister, "when sailing through unchartered waters it is vitally important to firmly hold the rudder carefully steering through the rocks".

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The relationship between China and New Zealand is going through a period of adjustment.

The coalition Government has made forthright statements of where it stands on key issues like human rights, the South China seas, cyber-hacking and national security.

This new-found directness is welcome and it can be handled.

Xi, a highly-skilled diplomat, who previously served as a minister and deputy chief of mission at China's Washington embassy, will have had to confront the shifting in the geo-political tectonic plates following Donald Trump's election as President.

The embassy's heft was recently boosted by the appointment of another former Washington embassy staffer as head of the political section.

But where Xi's predecessor Wang Lutong at times spoke with a semi-mystical softness about China and New Zealand, Xi's messaging is direct and opportunity focused.

Her comments on the bilateral relationship were delivered just minutes after Ardern made
hers.

The timing of the two statements was, to some degree, due to expert choreography by Ben King, the deputy secretary for the Americas and Asia at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) who underlined Ardern's messaging in short comments following Xi.

Interestingly, Chinese officials had been, to some degree, frustrated that positive statements made previously by Ardern — particularly at a recent Lunar New Year celebration held by the Chinese cultural bodies — had not been picked up in news media reports.

At that Auckland celebration, Ardern is said to have pointed to three areas where New Zealand could co-operate with China — to ensure the retention of the multilateral trading system, climate change initiatives and the Belt and Road initiative.

Trade Minister David Parker and Climate Minister James Shaw have been working with China on the multilateral trade and climate change issues.

Another signal as to who is in charge came with Ardern's confirmation that Parker has been invited to take part in Beijing's second Belt and Road conference in April.

This is an area which has been quite unclear since Peters' comments to the Lowy Institute last year where he suggested that the Government did not need to follow its predecessor's commitments.

Parker has confirmed there is likely to be a trade mission to China at the same time and has said infrastructure projects will also be on the agenda.

Notably this should intersect with an initiative by Infrastructure New Zealand which is taking a mission to China, Singapore and Hong Kong to look at infrastructure developments.

China is expected to use the upcoming Belt and Road forum to underline the importance of continued globalisation and the dangers of protectionism. Ardern has taken an important step forward.

But until she gains a commitment from Peters to not go off piste with more unapproved statements, the question of who is really piloting the China relationship will not entirely go away.