What does a small country at the bottom of the world do when it gets squeezed in a scrum as much bigger players start squaring off?
The Government is having to defend New Zealand's foreign policy strategy in what feels like a post-pandemic world order – even though the coronavirus is not done with us yet.
Various countries have shifted their stances on dealing with China in what could be significant ways: Increasing defence ties, exercises, and spending; looking at their supply chains; hardening rhetoric and economic penalties. While tensions have been building in recent years, the pandemic has been a catalyst.
It is all happening just as co-operation to distribute vaccines and reduce the impact of climate change is most needed.
Our neighbour and ally Australia is wrapped in a spiralling standoff with China. This week Canberra scrapped Victoria's Belt and Road infrastructure agreement with Beijing. The move follows political and economic disputes over the origins of the coronavirus investigation, alleged cyber-spying, China's human rights record, technology and exports.
Australia's stark stance is in contrast to New Zealand's tightrope-treading. And Wellington's with-and-without-you approach is coming under unsympathetic scrutiny in the UK and Australia.
New Zealand wants to maintain its longstanding membership of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing pact, protect its trade with China, turn down the diplomatic temperature in the region, and project independent policy views.
Before Covid-19 struck, New Zealand's ability to float between traditional Five Eyes allies the US, Britain, Canada and Australia and our biggest trading partner China was seen as a shrewd strategy.
Donald Trump's presidency had raised questions over whether America was in political decline, while China was in the ascendant. New Zealand and Australia had reaped benefits from multilateral trade agreements. China, while authoritarian, was mainly exerting its foreign influence through trade, although territorial disputes simmered in the background. In that context, widening our influence seemed smart.
The pandemic and its fallout have jolted that picture. And it fits with a key historic example.
The 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic broke out during World War I. Some of the behaviour that researchers say occurred then has been repeated during Covid.
A century ago, countries accused others of being responsible for the flu epidemic. There were rumours and misinformation over its origins, how it was spread, and whether it was deliberately introduced. Political considerations interfered with the health response. And there was a lack of trust among the public after years of war and propaganda. Some people had a problem with mask-wearing then as well.
Fast-forward to last year, when China was slammed over the coronavirus' emergence, how it happened and was dealt with. It also became a focus for supply-chain concerns. Beijing has reacted aggressively, deepening holes for itself over its widely condemned treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, disputes with Canada, Australia and Britain, and issues ranging from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, to the Indian border.
This has contributed to the frenzied geopolitical circling around China, with the US under Joe Biden escalating a new era of competition with Beijing. The EU wants to extend its military influence into Asia. The Quad security forum between the US, Japan, Australia and India has been given new impetus.
And New Zealand is suddenly being asked to spell out where we stand.
Going by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta's comments, the Government believes it is able to work with Beijing while sometimes issuing messages unwelcome to China. And it doesn't want to use Five Eyes as the vehicle for all its views on issues.
New Zealand is still carefully straddling. That approach is harder to pin down than a clear-cut position, but also avoids being painted into a corner. Where exactly is Australia's attempt to fight dragon fire with bush fire taking it? How does it end?
Biden has been practising his own double-compartment style of diplomacy. In his dealings so far with China and Russia, he has kept one space free for areas of co-operation, while filling the other with demands, sanctions, pressure and efforts to contain.
Just how far New Zealand can drift on our own course remains to be seen.
The relationship with Australia can't be allowed to deteriorate beyond normal occasional disagreements. It is far too important.
We don't want to farm out control of New Zealand's foreign policy but can we put at risk involvement in a powerful alliance just as the region heats up?
Unfortunately for now, we look like a Kiwi beef pattie in a Washington-Beijing burger.